How much confidence can we have in the consultation process?

28 Oct

“Consult: To seek approval for a course of action already decided upon.” Ambrose Bierce

There is a real question to be asked about the weighted legitimacy of public responses to Welsh Government consultations. I ask this as increasingly consultation summaries seem to determine the support for any particular proposals by playing the numbers game. When looking through a range of consultations that have closed in the education section of the Welsh Government’s consultation site online, it is clear to see that the determining factor in pushing ahead or scrapping a decision is purely down to the number of consultations that say yes, no or don’t know to the questions put forward. In the interest of balance I should point out there are some that do not use this approach but that, if anything, only serves to highlight the inconsistency of the way consultation responses are appraised.

In theory this may seem like a reasonable approach. After all, isn’t democracy about reflecting the majority view? But when you dig a little deeper there exists some serious anomalies with this approach, namely, the weighting given to the sort of people who are responding.

Take the NUT for example. When I draft a consultation on behalf of the union here in Wales I am doing so based on, and reflecting, the motions to form policies that have been taken through national conferences. The draft I put together is then reviewed, and often dissected forensically, by the national NUT Cymru/Wales committee, including members who have been democratically elected to represent the thousands upon thousands of teachers the union has in Wales. The membership of this committee has amassed literally hundreds of years of teaching experience from which to shape their response. Where there are specific expertise needed; for example consultations relating to special needs education; Welsh language provisions; early years intervention; child protection etc, individuals with specialist backgrounds within the union will be asked to contribute.

However, when the Welsh Government works through its consultation responses a ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ or ‘Don’t know,’ from this collective of accountability, experience and knowledge will be worth exactly the same as a response from Mr Joe Blogs who may have just stumbled across the consultation.

I am not necessarily arguing that special treatment should be given to unions, or any organisations for that matter. Furthermore I firmly believe that it is right that individuals not only take part in consultations but are encouraged to do so. Very often these individuals have experience and knowledge that can provide an expert view. All this being said is it undermining the Welsh Government if they are not recognising the authority at which one group of respondents approach a subject in comparison to others? Whoever those groups or individuals may be.

Taker the example of the recently published summary of responses to the consultation on appointments to the membership of the new Education Workforce Council.  In response to question 3 it states;

A small number of responses were strongly opposed to the power of the Minister to appointment members to the Council. They felt this was less democratic, undermined the independence of the council; and wanted its membership determined via an election process so that members were democratically accountable to education staff.

I would hazard a guess that every union representing workforce staff will have raised this issue.  (I do not have clarification on that but all union colleagues I have spoken to state they did raise it and I am unaware of any that did not feel it was an issue prior to the consultation closing).  It may be correct to say that the number of consultation responses raising this concern was small.  There were 10 trade union responses. However this doesn’t change the fact that those responses represent the vast majority, if not all, of the individuals who will be registered with the body.  Should no additional weight be given to the basis of these concerns?  Essentially because the unions have not reproduced a response for every member they represent, a painstakingly unrealistic expectation, we could end up with a body that is perceived to be undemocratic with its independence under a cloud from the very people it is ment to represent.

In terms of looking at things as a simple numbers game lets take another example of the summary of responses to the consultation on the revised areas of learning for the curriculum in Wales.  This is a hugely important issue that really does need to lead to decisions based on knowledge of the sector and a background in education.  Yet the analysis of questions is largely focused on totalling up the yes/no and don’t know tick boxes.  In many cases individuals will have ticked ‘don’t know’ as they wish to raise concerns while not necessarily opposing the proposal.  You do fear however that the don’t knows are simply lost in the sift.  This approach is replicated across numerous consultations and not all will have as many responses or as many from individuals and groups with educational expertise.  In those instances individual replies, while of course welcome and important, will have even more influence than in this case.

I am not making a plea to ignore one section of responses. By all means the Welsh Government can still total up the percentage of replies they get in each question. However, there is nothing also stopping them from taking additional steps to review the backgrounds of the responses to see if they call also pull out the expertise that representative groups have.  There is little confidence at present that this is being done, nor that in fact the basis of opposition or support for polices where the numbers don’t fall in your favour is particularly reviewed. This is not an education specific issue but no doubt a consultation failing across all Welsh Government portfolios, and indeed other tiers of government.

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