Consultation, consultation, consultation...

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On a crisp autumnal day in the heart of imperial Whitehall, the imposing doors of HM Treasury were opened on Tuesday by the ‘Powers-That-Be’ for a talk on getting legislation through the UK Parliament.

Stephen Kelly, Chief Operating Officer for the Government, opened the discussions.

I have to admit that I was a tad confused by this. I thought—somewhat naively perhaps—that the COO for the government was the Prime Minister or, at the very least, some be-suited and impossibly Machiavellian minion of his. Alas, this wasn’t the case. I suppose the obvious clue was that there wasn’t a great deal of security surrounding Mr Kelly. He looked relaxed, confident and completely devoid of any James Bond-style briefcase containing shiny nuclear buttons (pity really, as I have always wondered what the PM’s ‘emergency satchel’ looks like).

So, what was the COO doing there?

It turns out that Stephen Kelly is responsible for shaking up Civil Service’s operations by trying to improve the way the government operates.

He has also been heavily involved in ‘Parliament Week,’ a programme of events and activities which are all about ‘connecting, inspiring and informing people across the UK about their democracy’

Now this has got to be a tricky task indeed when so many people and businesses seemingly feel dis-engaged with, or cynical about, democracy.

Even our wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, wasn’t always that impressed with our political system:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time

Indeed.

During the panel discussion with Lord Taylor of Holbeach and various civil servants later in the morning, there was talk that many parliamentary processes should ideally be reformed so that the ‘worst form of government’ becomes a bit less bad (although in fairness this wasn’t quite how they expressed this). Whilst a lot of politicians like the pomp and pageantry of Parliament, the reality is that tradition can clog up processes and make law-making inefficient. It is time to start looking at creating a Parliament fit for the 21st century as opposed to the 19th century.

Personally, I don’t hold out a lot of hope that things will change quickly. The British are the world’s leaders at incremental change. Things are not going to change much soon.

This doesn’t mean, however, that all is lost. Far from it.

The panel reiterated the importance of getting involved in other ways and, given the whizzy nature of the Internet, this is easier than ever (well that’s the theory anyway). They were particularly keen that people and businesses get involved by giving feedback during any consultation process. To this end, the government updated its consultation principles a few weeks ago and, over the years, has been trying to make this process as easy as possible.

So, if a proposed law is likely to affect you or your business and a consultation has been issued, then try to get involved.

Here are some tips on the consultation process:

  • answer the questions that are asked, not the ones that you would like to be asked (there is often a space for general comments)
  • try to respond to the consultation with examples and evidence
  • if appropriate, try to offer solutions; not just a diatribe of abuse and criticisms
  • be brief and be clear
  • send your views as soon as possible otherwise it may get clogged up in all of the other late arrivals
  • don’t forget to diarise when the government is looking to publish its responses!

As a final thought, it is always worth bearing in mind that consultations are not referenda. They are exactly that: consultations. You still need to head down the poll booth every 5 years to put your X in the relevant box.

So now you know what to do if a consultation looms.

And if ever HM Government is looking to consult on whether the nuclear briefcase should be a subtle cream or an earthy neutral colour, go for the latter.

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