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04/02/2016

Editor's note: Negotiating the information roadblock

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If there is one thing Whitehall-watchers agree on, it is that for 20 years Budget speeches, Comprehensive Spending Reviews and the Amazonian forest of documents accompanying them have become more misleading than reliable, writes  The Planner's consultant editor Huw Morris.

Huw MorrisIn November’s spending review, rather than unveiling the actual settlements the Treasury reached with departments, it published comparisons with its own spending review baseline. – the same baseline it had absolutely no intention of sticking to. In one example, the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s day-to-day spending fell by around 40 per cent rather than the 16 per cent featured by the Treasury.

The spending review means efficiency reforms, which alongside the drive to devolution, increase the emphasis on learning from what’s happening in the country. Here lies an information roadblock. Too often the right data does not exist. Or there is too much data to make the right decision. Or there aren’t the people to find the right information. Or that the information is out there but nobody knows how to use it. Sounds like Yes, Minister.

To add fuel to the fire, research by YouGov last year found that 53 per cent of the public wants to be involved in big policy decisions but only 7 per cent feel they are heard. That’s a recipe for rancour when the climate is dominated by the need for tough decisions.

A study by the Institute for Government offers some lessons on how to engage the public that will sound familiar to many in planning and development.

“Research by YouGov last year found that 53 per cent of the public want to be involved in major policy decisions but only 7 per cent feel they are heard"

The public is either unclear about what it can achieve through participation or, more dangerously, its expectations are too high. People want to see their involvement has an impact.

They also want to be involved early. The institute highlights Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where two years of engagement led people to approve its expansion with noise and pollution controls. There’s a lesson there as the UK agonises over airport expansion in the South-East. Then there is involving the right people through the right channels – targeting specific groups who use a service, not just the general public.

What has to change? One-off consultations are barely exercises in listening, particularly when they have sharp deadlines. And there is still a prevailing attitude that engagement is a benevolent act from on high when the public might just help find a better outcome.

And if engagement was a continuous feature of services, this would lead to pools of people who could be mobilised when hard decisions had to be made. Planners could teach the country a few things in some of these fields but take a few tips in others as we struggle to do more with less.

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