The false promise of consultation

Posted by Richard D North under 'Power To The People!' on 19 September 2008

Successive governments have insisted that they are “listening” in a new way. They seek – fairly enough – to address a modern anxiety that politicians “are out of touch”. But modern “public consultation” doesn’t make policy. It never did, and can’t now.Here’s an interesting snippet from The Economist, entitled Unnecessary treatment, it was discussing a piece of government policy which ministers hoped to convey as popular. They cited some consultation results as evidence. The Economist noted:

.. the NHS in London declared on May 6th that the consultation had shown broad support for the plan, citing the 51% of respondents who had backed the proposal that almost all GP practices should be part of a polyclinic. That less-than-ringing vote of confidence seems particularly hollow as only 5,000 individuals and organisations responded. Almost a third of those filling in the questionnaire worked for the NHS, and just 3,760 answered the question on polyclinics. The determination of the London NHS to press ahead regardless inspires little confidence in Lord Darzi’s recent pledge that local people would have a say in changes arising from his national review.

The point here is that old-fashioned government always knew how to consult with important interest groups, including those representing minorities and so on. Our modern age is supposed to have devised ways of consulting with The People in some Big Conversation (in one New Labour formulation). It doesn’t seem to have worked in some new way, and yet its dubious results are still paraded as though evidence of a new way of doing business.

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