Monday, 22 October 2012

On consultation...


Local government is encouraged - in that gloriously passive aggressive manner beloved of the Department for Communities and Local Government - to "consult" on the setting of budgets. And Councils, carefully and studiously adhere to this requirement setting about extensive and carefully planned consultations.

This evening I attended one of those consultations. Not in Bradford but elsewhere to see what it looks like from the perspective of a consumer of consultation rather than a producer. The Council in question has gone to a lot of trouble - a structured and engaging process, lots of nice technology and a slightly patronising presentation that had the merit of not quite saying "this is all too complicated for ordinary humans to comprehend."

I understand that this show had been on the road - popping into different locations across the borough in question to do the consultation with folk for whom going into the town centre is a rare (even unlikely) occasion. Tonight it arrived in town complete with the Council leader, Chief Executive, Director or Finance and a collection of other councillors and officers. The Council in question has made a genuine and substantial effort to "consult".

And they engaged with about 30 members of the public (including several like me who are offcumdens and only there because our professional life requires it). And this - the lack of public - underlines the problems with consultations. Let's assume that the consultation roadshow stopped at twenty places, each generating 30-50 members of the public. That's 1000 people who have taken part in the consultation out of a population of over 200,000. Those people are not representative - indeed the chances of them having (as I did) a vested interest in one or other aspect of the Council's work is, I suspect, pretty high.

There is no way that - however hard the Council has tried - this consultation can represent the views of the local populace. And this begs a question about the whole process - the perceived need for this "consultation". It seems to me that this "need" reflects the loss of confidence in representative democracy rather than any improvement to the processes of government.

Today, rather than our role of representing the people who elect us in the decision-making of the Council, us local councillors are told we are "community leaders". Instead of representation our role is to act as some sort of cheerleader for endless processes of "engagement" and "involvement". Yet, despite this change, 90% of the population remain neither engaged nor involved in these processes. And the result of this disengagement and non-involvement is that consultation processes become captured by the interested rather than reflecting of public concern (let alone opinion).

The odd thing is that us councillors are told our authority is undermined by low turnouts. Yet around 4,500 folk took part in electing me - almost certainly more that will take part in Bradford's budget "consultation". And in the course of the year I will speak to hundreds of those folk - listening, arguing and, if you must, "consulting". All that these requirements to consult do is to further undermine the role of the councillor.

We replace electoral accountability with consultations that fail to reflect the views of most people, can be manipulated by the interested and that are controlled by council officers. I see no point or purpose to them.


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