A commitment on the final page of the Programme for Government to – “… establish an easily accessible portal to provide details of all… public consultations” has now been met with the launching of the Public Consultations Portal. That portal is accessible on the website Gov.ie https://www.gov.ie/en/consultations/.
Public consultations provide an important opportunity for the public to input directly into matters which affect them and their communities. Up to now there was no single mechanism by which individuals could access information on consultations in the public arena. This has now been rectified with the advent of the new portal.
When the website is fully operational, people will be able to subscribe to the portal and get an email notification of new consultations. They will also be able to share details of a consultation by email and on social media.
Why have a Portal?
In today’s world, people want to be able to access information easily and quickly. The new consultation portal has been set-up to provide details of all public consultations in one centre. At its launch, Minister of State, Patrick O’Donovan T.D., said – “The launch of the Public Consultations Portal on Gov.ie, will allow people to easily find and share invitations to contribute to decision making that affects them. The launch of this… is a key step to improving our methods of digital engagement. Digital engagement will be a key tool in the future to meet people’s expectations of more immediate and responsive engagement and in turn, better policies and services”. https://www.per.gov.ie/en/?s=public+consultation&submit=+
In the past, governments typically developed their policies cloaked in secrecy. The only consultation that really mattered took place on Election Day. That has changed radically during the past fifteen years. As a matter of course, governments now seek the views of those outside the decision-making process in order to better inform that process. Consultation is not intended to be a substitute for decision-making. Rather it reflects the fact that the decision-making process benefits from having the widest range of views and fullest information on a particular issue. Back in 2005, the Department of the Taoiseach produced a very useful set of guidelines on consultation, entitled ‘Reaching Out’ https://www.taoiseach.gov.ie/Consult_english.pdf . The following quotation demonstrates the main reasons for engaging in consultation:
What are the latest Guidelines?
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform published new consultation guidelines in 2016 entitled ‘Consultation Principles & Guidance’ https://www.per.gov.ie/en/consultation-guidelines/ They update the 2005 guidelines, following a review of best practice in the field of consultation. They also have regard to the Open Government Partnership National Action Plan 2014-2016. In common with many other countries, the new guidelines adopt a principles-based approach to public consultation. The aim is to improve transparency, responsiveness and accessibility of consultations.
The Guidance promotes three principles, which aim to improve the way the public sector consults, with an emphasis on real, meaningful, and targeted engagement.
Is more needed?
Up-to-date guidelines and now a central portal certainly help improve the process of public consultation. But does more need to be done? For example, should public consultation be mandatory? The current guidelines from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform do not have legal force. Neither do the guidelines – “…prevail over statutory or mandatory requirements to consult certain groups on certain issues”. However, the current guidelines do suggest the development of a legislative footprint. Specifically the guidelines state that – “Provision of such a footprint in relation to legislative proposals is a requirement under the Open Government Partnership National Action Plan…it is proposed that at each of the main milestones during the preparation of legislation…summary information would be published on such issues as meetings held with stakeholders/representative bodies, submissions received and identifying any substantive changes that may have been made in the policy approach”. https://www.per.gov.ie/en/consultation-guidelines/
The public needs to be vigilant when it comes to public consultation. They need to keep a close eye on what is being proposed and closing time/dates for submissions. There is no point in spending time responding to consultation if it is evident that the decision has already been taken. Neither is there any point in responding if there is evidence that those in charge are unlikely to be open to influence or change in their plans. It is important that participants in a consultation process are given clear guidance on what exactly they are being asked to comment on, and how their information will be considered. Every proposal going to public consultation should be explained in sufficient detail so that those being consulted can give meaningful responses. The effectiveness of any consultation process will be determined by the clarity of the description of what is being covered and the exactness of the guidance on how feedback and input will be considered by those undertaking the consultation.
Tom Ferris is a Consultant Economist specialising in Better Regulation. He lectures on a number of PAI courses and contributes blogs regularly to PAI.
He was formerly the Senior Economist at the Department of Transport.