On some issues, the government has a firm idea of what it wants to do, and it will go ahead and do it regardless of public opinion, expert advice, whether what it wants to do is even physically possible, and so on.
Government, however, is huge. The vast majority of issues it deals with never make it to Parliament itself, and are not so much of a party-political line in the sand. On these, the government departments tend to have more of an interest in making sure that their actions are reasonable, and that there are no embarassingly obvious-in-retrospect details that they happen to have overlooked.
Enter, the government consultation. It's easy to be cynical about them, since the majority of high-profile consultations are on the high-profile "we're doing this anyway" issues. The majority of consultations, however, are not high-profile. Some of them, the department running the consultation may consider itself lucky to get even 10 replies.
These consultations take place in the background - away from the shouting matches of Parliament, and the criticism of the tabloid press - and so they're one of the easier ways to get the government to actually listen. Of course, they won't be listening on a topic of supreme importance, but there is a good opportunity here to get some small improvements made.
I've responded to several of these "background" consultations, and in all cases the final proposal was better than the original proposal in at least one way that I had requested. Furthermore, in a couple of cases where the consultation results were published in enough detail, I was the only respondee raising certain points that became part of the final proposal.
This is not due to my secretly being an influential lobbyist (I'm not) or particularly persuasive (likewise) but because the set up of consultations is very favourable to the government listening, and because the response rate is so low that one's submissions rarely get lost in the noise.
It's therefore a great opportunity to get some non-default perspectives into government thinking.
So: a few tips for replying to consultations.
- First, find your consultation. This is harder than it looks. Well-known organisations may get an invitation to the consultation, if it's relevant to their field. Ordinary citizens and residents do not. So, you either have to hear about it in passing elsewhere, or go looking for it. There is a search. It's not particularly good. (Still, this keeps most of the reactionary journalists away - too much effort for them - so the obscurity isn't all bad)
- Remember that you don't need to answer all the questions. If you only have things to say on one or two, it's still worth saying them. You don't necessarily have to spend a lot of time replying.
- If you are aware of research studies that support your argument, provide the references in your reply when summarising what they say. This will make it much easier for the civil servants who process your response to also obtain the research, if they want to.
- "Form" responses to consultations are almost certainly pointless (though having several people co-sign a single submission is fine)
- Check the deadlines. Consultations usually run for a few months, though because of the first point there's a fair chance you'll only find out about it a few days before the deadline.
- Remember that you don't need to have formal qualifications or experience in an area to put forward an opinion. (Though it may be worthwhile to mention them, if you do). Generally you will be required to specify whether you are replying as an individual or on behalf of an organisation.
- Submission formats for consultations vary. Try to use their preferred format unless it's inaccessible for you. (This being the government, they should be reasonably good about providing accessible formats if you ask)
- Finally, tell other people about the consultation! That's how I usually find out about them.
A few current consultations that you might be interested in. The first two I've already posted about - the rest are ones I've just found now:
- Sex education (closes 30 November 2011) - more details, and my response
- EHRC religious discrimination law (closes 5 September 2011) - more details, and my response
- Family migration (closes 6 October 2011) - a consultation on the criteria for allowing family members who are not EU citizens to move to the UK.
- A new mandatory power of possession for anti-social behaviour: Consultation (closes 7 November 2011) - a consultation on allowing social landlords to evict people involved in criminal behaviour, as a reaction to the riots. This one probably counts as "we're going to do it anyway" but there may be some scope for toning down the worst aspects.
- Making Open Data Real: A Public Consultation (closes 27 October 2011) - a good opportunity to ask for a more consolidated consultation list?
Feel free to link to other consultations and/or your responses in comments.