What we know about consultation and policy-making

In today's post, Professor Paul Cairney reflects on the connections between policy theory and 'consultation', broadly construed. If consultation has many guises, how should we understand it? And, crucially, where does it fit in a complex, messy, and uncertain policy world?

My second favourite phrase, as an undergraduate at Glasgow’s top University, was Brian Hogwood’s: ‘if consultation means everything, then maybe it means nothing’. It was a call to ‘unpack’ the term, whose meaning could range from cosmetic consultation in public to crucial interventions in private.

My first favourite was Grant Jordan and Jeremy Richardson’s ‘policy community’, which describes an important relationship between policymakers and some of the actors they consult (see also ‘informal governance’, including Alison Woodward’s example of the ‘velvet triangle’). The logic is as follows:

1. Policymakers are subject to ‘bounded rationality’: they cannot process issues comprehensively. By necessity, they have to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty relates to the amount of information we have to inform policy and policymaking. Ambiguity relates to the way in which we understand policy problems. The policy process is therefore about (1) the short cuts that policymakers use to gather information and understand complex issues, and (2) the ways in which policy participants compete to determine which information is used and how policymakers understand problems.

2. Policymakers and key actors form policy networks or communities. To deal with bounded rationality, they delegate responsibility to civil servants who, in turn, rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade information for access to government. This process often becomes routine: civil servants begin to trust and rely on certain organisations and they form meaningful relationships. If so, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist ‘policy communities’ that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement. Network theories tend to consider the key implications, including a tendency for governments to contain ‘silos’ and struggle to ‘join up’ government when policy is made in so many different places.

3. Note the relevance to our current focus on ‘evidence-based policymaking. In most cases, policymakers use consultation to reduce uncertainty: they gather information to help identify the size of a problem on which they already have a view. In some, they use it to reduce ambiguity: only some actors will influence how they understand and try to solve a policy problem, and therefore what further information they will seek.

4. Note the importance of pluralist democracy to some policymakers. Consider the implications of bounded rationality to democracy: we put our faith in representative democracy, but ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities. A lot of practical responsibility is in the hands of civil servants, who partly seek legitimacy by consulting far and wide, to generate the ‘ownership’ of policy among key actors, professional groups, and perhaps ‘civil society’. This takes place well before, for example, a government presents a draft Act to Parliament and, in many cases, it produces policy without subsequent reference to Parliament.

If you put all these things together, you can see the importance of different kinds of consultation.

Consider a simple spectrum of consultation. At one end is cosmetic consultation: policymakers are paying high attention and they already know how they feel about a problem. So, they consult as part of a ‘standard operating procedure’ in which governments seek legitimacy, but the consultation will not influence their decision. Perhaps it comes towards the end of their deliberations.

At the other end is super-meaningful consultation, but perhaps with a small number of key people: they get together regularly, identify the issues that deserve most attention, and agree on how to ‘frame’ or understand the problem.

So, in our discussions, we might discuss how a range of activities fit in: the ‘trawling’ exercises to gain as many views as possible; working groups to generate questions for consultation; commissions to process rather technical looking issues, generally out of the public spotlight; other ‘pre-consultation’ with key actors before public consultation; and so on.

This post originally appeared on Paul's personal blog; posted here by Luke Craven.