What happens to your consultation responses?

Have you ever completed a response to a government consultation? If so, have you ever wondered what happens to your response? Do they read it? Who reads it? The minister? A summer intern? A policy adviser? And then what happens to it after that?

Every consultation is different, and how government handles the responses to the same-sex marriage consultation (over 228,000 responses) is very different to how they handle the responses to a typical consultation in higher education policy or competition policy (typical number of responses 200-400). In this article I’ll focus on the latter, and hope to shed light on the mysteries of what happens to your carefully crafted words.

Why does government consult?

Other than to fulfil statutory obligations, there are three main reasons why government might carry out a consultation:

  • To decide whether or not to do something.
  • To decide on how to do something.
  • To find out what people will think if it does something.

These are interlinked. Groups being opposed to something does not necessarily mean it is a bad idea – factory owners might well oppose a policy to stop them polluting – but sometimes opposition may be for a good reason. At other times, stakeholders may be able to suggest a way in which the same objective could be achieved in a better, simpler or more proportionate way. One of the perennial challenges for government in considering consultation responses, is that knowledge about an area and vested interest in an area are typically highly correlated.

What are civil servants thinking?

In a complex consultation, it’s important to recognise that analysis will typically take place on two levels:

  • The tactical level: this is the detailed analysis of whether or how to carry out a specific policy – how to benchmark the TEF, to reform the criminal cartel offence or determine the definition of a university. It typically requires detailed analysis and consideration by a policy expert and in-depth assessment of consultation responses.
  • The strategic level: these are the overall decisions on how to position the response: whether to make fundamental changes in policy, how to balance the concerns of different stakeholders and how to ensure the decisions being made at the tactical level add up to a coherent and workable policy position.

It’s vital that these levels interact. For example, if on five different consultation questions stakeholders are saying the policy may cause some disadvantage to mature students, it’s vital to recognise the overall impact and to consider where to mitigate it. Similarly, if Universities UK or NUS have four major concerns, it may be helpful to advise the minister on where they might be able to concede to meet one of them – and this is likely to require looking across the whole piece, rather than simply looking at each issue in isolation.

Ministers tend to concern themselves primarily with decisions at the strategic level, though may take an interest in decisions at the tactical level on matters that interest them.

So how are the responses analysed?

Every civil servant will do things a bit differently – and the approach will always need to be varied depending on the specific consultation, its scope and the number of responses. But here’s one way of doing it.

  • Quantitative analysis of the questions – how many responses answered yes, no or not sure to each question. This is the easiest part, but is perhaps the least informative as a response from NUS is weighted the same as that from an individual student.
  • The responses are sorted by question into a spreadsheet or table, such that all the answers to each question can be found together. Where responses don’t neatly answer the questions, judgement is used to assign text to each question.
  • Individual policy leads with responsibility for each question or policy area read every response related to their area and begin to develop advice accordingly.
  • A sample of approximately 20 full responses are selected. This might include, for example, Universities UK, GuildHE, Million+, University Alliance, the Russell Group, Independent HE, Association of Colleges, AdvanceHE, NUS, an employer body, a widening participation body, two further education colleges, two independent providers, and eight universities chosen to be a cross-section of the sector (e.g. top and bottom of the league table, pre and post-92, research-intensive and non-research intensive, different TEF ratings, different (and no) mission groups, the Open University). These responses are read in full by the senior policy officials involved in the response, to get a sense of the overall flavour of the response.
  • The team gather regularly to discuss the emerging findings, highlight common themes and identify difficult decision areas.

Alongside this, other work will be taking place – typically analysis and stakeholder conversations.

Analysis may be statistical, economic or legal and plays a vital role in advising ministers on potential courses of action. In many cases, consultation responses will help tell officials what questions to ask; the detailed analysis will supply the answers as to what response is appropriate. Similarly, legal work is essential in determining what is and is not possible within the law or, potentially, what legislation (primary or secondary) would be needed to bring it into effect.

Stakeholder conversations, on the other hand, provide the vital context to the dry words of the responses. They provide an opportunity for civil servants to ask questions, clarify misunderstandings and, with trusted stakeholders, to explore ideas, compromises or potential solutions. Perhaps equally importantly, they allow officials to get a sense of what really matters to a stakeholder.

If the Russell Group, for example, has responded negatively to every question in a consultation a conversation can establish which of these are mild irritants, and which will result in calls to the Chancellor, threats of departmental closures and the vice chancellor of Oxford castigating your minister on national television. It should be noted it will frequently happen that officials will advise a minister to do something that will upset a prominent stakeholder: this is entirely proper, and ministers are often willing to do so – what they understandably take a dim view of, however, is not being warned that this will happen beforehand.

Involving ministers

Involving ministers appropriately is critical in responding properly to a consultation. Not only are they the ultimate decision makers, but getting a minister’s steer early can ensure that policy thinking and analysis is directed towards options they wish to consider, rather than those they are opposed to. The level of detail a minister wishes to engage with will vary, but typically will include any decision that is strategic, has major resource implications, is about an issue they care personally about or that they are likely to get questioned about on the Today programme or in Parliament.

In a major, complex consultation, ideally one might put an early submission to the minister, bringing out key themes, identifying difficult trade-offs and highlighting where the major decision points will be. This may be followed by narrower, more detailed submissions on specific policy questions of significance, before concluding with a final more strategic submission, that brings everything together and discusses handling and implementation.

In reality, of course, it is never that simple. Some issues will need to be revisited more than once; legal or statistical analysis may throw up unanticipated concerns; the views of other government departments must be taken into account and seeing a later submission may cause a minister to reconsider their position on a former one. Entirely appropriately, the minister may also wish to consult influential stakeholders during the process, or to consider the impact and relationship with other governmental policies, which may be proceeding at a different rate.

So what does happen to your response?

Ultimately, civil servants take consultations extremely seriously. For a typical consultation in the higher education area, every consultation response will be read by someone, and most by more than one person, while summaries and analyses of the responses will be shared and assessed by many. This is complemented by a wide range of additional activities, including both internal analysis and external dialogue, including one on one meetings and much broader listening events.

It’s important to remember that a consultation isn’t a plebiscite. Civil servants and ministers aren’t just trying to find out what’s popular; they’re trying to find out how to fulfil their objectives. And receiving good, detailed responses, from a wide range of stakeholders, are essential to them doing so.

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