The Meaning of Meaningful

tom elkinsBefore Christmas, Compact Voice expressed concern about the short time scales which the Government was allowing for consultation, and in particular, one on commissioning launched by OCS. We wrote:

“Compact Voice is concerned that with the pace of Government change, shorter time frames are becoming commonplace, with insufficient effort being put into meaningful consultation which follows Compact principles.”
  
We wrote to Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, expressing this concern, who replied to Simon Blake, our chair, explaining that “the general feedback from these consultation events suggests that sector organisations appreciate the opportunity to contribute and understand the reasons for tight timescales.” The Minister also promised to give Compact Voice advanced warnings of any consultations which are less than twelve weeks in duration, noting that these should be ‘rare cases’.
 
We agree they should be rare, especially as at the moment there seems to be a steady stream of  consultation processes which fall short of the recommended duration. While we do accept that in some cases it is not possible to consult for the full twelve weeks, such instances should be unavoidable, necessary and genuinely rare. The resulting consultation should also still be comprehensive, exhaustive, and representative. In fact, with shorter time frames, this is even more important.
 
What ‘meaningful engagement’ means is not defined within the Compact, and we are currently in the process of finalising guidance on what we think this should look like. If – on what we hope will be genuinely rare occasions – we are approached by OCS and other representatives from Government about shorter consultation periods, we will work with them to ensure that they have met the standards we will publish in this guidance, and have ‘provided clear explanations and rationale for shorter time-frames’ as the Compact outlines.
 
Recently, a comment was posted on our website pointing out that the Department of Health (DH) had made additional funding available to the sector to help mitigate the difficult financial environment many are facing. This was introduced with a short timescale for applications, however, Compact Voice had been contacted in advance about this. DH suggested a number of ways to reach and engage with eligible organisations, and we felt that the spirit of this approach would help mitigate the short time frame. We recognised the restrictions and talked through sensible options, in the spirit of partnership working.
 
The pace of change currently being experienced by the sector is staggering, with many struggling to keep up with the wide array of policy announcements. More so than ever, it is important to discuss early and often where challenges may arise, and consider how they may affect relevant partners. We know it is not always going to be perfect, as much as we wish it was, but we can improve and understand through proper engagement. Only then can we hope to minimise the negative impact of when things are less than ideal.
 
I often say to those involved with the Compact that its principles are about the beginning of relationships, not just the end. That is even more true in challenging times and vital in the weeks and months ahead.

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Tom