Policy by design: a more inclusive model of public consultation

Nathan Owen encourages Welsh Government to think more inclusively and dynamically about their consultation process.

As we adjust to the new normal of lockdown, many of us are using this unexpected downtime to learn a language or take up a new hobby.

Since returning to Wales earlier this year, I’ve been spending some of my free time trying to get to grips with the Welsh political landscape, having spent the last few years working for the New Zealand civil service. 

One thing that’s struck me is the different way each government approaches public consultation. Specifically, that what I’d learnt and understood to be good practice seemed suspiciously absent in my home nation. 

At a time of low confidence in government, election turnouts well under 50%, and persistent inequality for BAME and disability communities – should we be doing more to capture diverse voices and experiences to help solve Wales’ toughest social issues?

First impressions of public consultation in Wales

Over the last few weeks, I have been leafing through ponderous consultation documents filled with technical jargon. My initial impression is that they seem accessible only to those with considerable prior knowledge of the subject matter. 

Typically, they come with a response form containing a series of specific questions concerned with whether the document ‘provides enough clarity’ or is ‘sufficiently clear’ – as if deliberately designed to dissuade any meaningful comment from the would-be respondent.

My immediate thought isn’t that this is a genuine way in which I can contribute to the development of policies that will impact me and my community. Instead, I feel like I’m reading a pre-ordained, well-advanced position with minimal room for alteration.

If not immediately discouraged from responding, I can be fairly confident that the final policy will look suspiciously similar to what is currently in front of me.

This traditional ‘consultation’ excludes the vast majority and is a likely contributing factor in the deficit of public trust and understanding of the work of government. How many of us can say that we’ve taken part in a public consultation outside of our professional lives? 

In this guise, consultation seems little more than a ‘tick-box’ exercise, fulfilling government’s obligations whilst minimising the chance of any genuine, critical feedback. 

Experience of public consultation in New Zealand

In recent years, the New Zealand public sector has recognised that effective policy making relies on enabling those affected by the policy to participate in its development in an authentic way. 

There has been a shift away from traditional approaches, in favour of a stronger focus on engagement with diverse groups of people. The intention is to develop policies that are more responsive to their needs and experiences and therefore far more likely to achieve the intended outcomes. 

By enabling participation from people at all levels of the system – from experts and decision makers, through to service delivery professionals and the ‘end-user’ and their families – you are more likely to identify innovative and workable solutions to complex problems.

By adopting this approach, governments also demonstrate responsiveness and inclusivity, which may help restore public confidence.

Terms like ‘co-design’, ‘customer insight’ and ‘human-centred design’, which trace their origins from the private sector, are common parlance across government agencies. Some even have dedicated departments of ‘designers’ working in collaboration with traditional policy teams.

Using a recognised methodology, their role is to bring the human element into the policy process and to create stronger feedback loops between policy and its impact on the ground. In doing so, they hold decision makers accountable to the needs of those they serve.

For this to work, officials must be prepared to challenge their preconceptions and make alterations to their thinking based on what the public is telling them. Whilst often challenging, there is a widespread acknowledgement that it is central to inclusive, transparent and effective government.

As an example, the project that I worked on was a review of a key part of the secondary education system. From the outset, there was an acknowledgement from within the organisation that it is often good at telling the sector what to do, but not so good at listening. 

To change this narrative, our consultation model was explicitly designed to facilitate meaningful conversations with as many people with experience of the system as possible.

We knew that a generic response form, with a predetermined set of questions would likely only solicit a response from the usual suspects. So we simply asked people to share their experiences – the challenges, successes, what they like, and what we can do better. 

We tried to create inclusive opportunities to make contribution accessible for everyone. We ran focus groups and interviews. But we also tried innovative types of engagement, including a student voice competition, parliamentary debates between students and MPs, and a reddit AMA session with the Minister. 

We held co-design events where we brought together people from across the education spectrum to share their perspectives, test ideas, and explore potential solutions. 

Partnering with influencers helped us reach communities that we wouldn’t normally have been able to. 84,000 engagements were captured on the Ministry’s official social channels alone. 

We targeted those who aren’t always heard and who have not been well served by the education system, including Māori and Pacific communities, students with learning support needs and those in correctional facilities.

We worked with local community groups, regional educators and iwi (Māori tribal groups) to generate as much engagement from traditionally marginalised groups as possible. 

16,000 people responded, a quarter of those were young people. This was just one project in a national education reform programme which received a total of 43,000 submissions.

The result was an announcement of a series of policy changes that received unprecedented cross-party support and backing from the education sector. We were able to show our working, and directly trace the changes we were making back to what the public had told us. 

In comparison, the Curriculum for Wales 2022 consultation, one of the largest and most comprehensive consultations ever undertaken in Wales received 1,680 contributions, 423 from young people. A brief glance at the Welsh Government’s website shows it is not uncommon to receive a tiny fraction of this number. 

Now I can by no means say that we ran a perfect process and we certainly encountered some scepticism. We had to invest a considerable degree of effort and resource on ensuring that the co-design approach was understood.

This is an emerging field in policy making and a new way of working for our historically risk-averse organisation. Convincing some of our stakeholders of the value of greater openness inclusivity was certainly a challenge. 

But achieving real change that addresses historical inequities within the system relies on the buy-in from those who have not previously been included in the process.

As a participant at one of our co-design events succinctly put it, ‘anyone not part of the conversation is unlikely to be sold on the solution’. 

It wouldn’t be fair to say that this project addressed all of the barriers to achievement for students of all backgrounds. Nor that it was entirely inclusive of every diverse viewpoint.

Inequities persist in the system and only time and implementation will tell whether progress has been made. But it does show a blueprint for what is possible and challenges the preconception that certain groups simply won’t engage in the policy process.

As this crisis unfolds, many commentators are exploring what a post-covid world could look like. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that this event affords us an opportunity to reset and do things differently.

As Welsh Government and its UK counterparts look to the future, why not consider what is being done elsewhere as a potential way to achieve meaningful and sustainable social change.

Nathan Owen is Policy and Public Affairs Manager at RNIB, he has recently returned to Wales after la time working in New Zealand.

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