Friday, October 17, 2008

How Not to Consult in Two Easy Lessons

I had a meeting earlier this week with a couple of people from something called The Consultation Institute. Its remit is to guide public bodies on how they should conduct proper, transparent public consultations. It seems that Gordon Brown's government should be making good use of the Consultation Institute's training courses.

Today, two government consultations have, to put it mildly, been brought into disrepute. Firstly, the Taking Liberties blog exposes the sham consultation by the Department of Health on restricting even further the rights of smokers. It appears that they doled out taxpayers' money to the anti-smoking lobby group ASH, which then organised a huge response to the consultation.

But the second case is even more worrying, and involves Gordon Brown's favourite pollster, Deborah Mattinson, and her company Opinion Leader Research. Guido notes that she has in the past been paid £150,000 by the taxpayer for running a one day seminar. She also organises the Citizens Juries events. I'm not going to put any spin on today's news. I will simply post a press release put out today by Greenpeace (and that is a sentence I never thought I would write on this blog!)...

OFFICIAL RULING - BROWN’S POLLSTERS FIXED SECOND PUBLIC CONSULTATION ON NUCLEAR POWER

GORDON BROWN’S public consultation on nuclear power was fixed by the market research company which carried out the polling, according to the official trade body.

In an explosive ruling with profound implications for energy policy, the Market Research Standards Board has found that in the consultation conducted by Opinion Leader Research, “information was inaccurately or misleadingly presented, or was imbalanced, which gave rise to a material risk of respondents being led towards a particular answer.” The ruling follows a comprehensive 33 page complaint from Greenpeace.

The Board said in its ruling that the public consultation was in breach of the official industry Code of Conduct which provides that market research companies “must take reasonable steps to ensure that Respondents are not led towards a particular answer.” The Board concluded that “this was not a minor or trivial breach.” OLR are now required “to take corrective action with regard to the process that resulted in the breach in this case” – a development that leaves energy policy in disarray.

OLR has pocketed millions of pounds from the Government, and the OLR boss responsible for the conduct of the consultation - Deborah Mattinson - is an advisor and the leading private pollster to Gordon Brown.

The Government itself is fingered for blame in the ruling, with the MRSB noting “that drafts of the materials” which were found to be misleading “were reviewed at various stages by COI and BERR officials.” COI is the Central Office of Information.

The polling took place at a number of venues in September last year after the original, first consultation was found by the High Court to have been fixed. In the second consultation – required by Mr Justice Sullivan - selected members of the public were asked their views on nuclear power. One document given to attendees claimed that nuclear power “is substantially cheaper than wind generation”. Yet the Government’s own figures from the Energy White Paper in 2003 show the opposite. The full 33 page Greenpeace complaint detailing the many DBERR and OLR misrepresentations can be found here:

Some participants apparently saw through the second fixed government consultation. One contacted Greenpeace to say that she “left the event in Edinburgh feeling furious with the government’s blatant marketing of nuclear power” and the “participants of ‘Talking Energy’ were pushed up against a wall so they had no choice but to support a new generation of nuclear power plants.” Greenpeace boss John Sauven today said:

“It’s now official, another nuclear consultation was fixed. The process was a sham and an insult to the people who took part. You have to ask where this leaves government energy policy after this politically explosive ruling. The case for building new nuclear reactors is so weak that Brown’s personal pollsters tried to rig the process. Ministers claim this was just a small part of a big process, but that only holds water if you think the public is a small part of a public consultation. Gordon Brown recently committed the UK to generating around 40% of our electricity from renewables by 2020. If he means it, Britain could become a world leader in clean energy, powering our homes and offices while slashing emissions. Yet his blind pursuit of nuclear power risks blocking the delivery of the real solutions to climate change.”

Last year Greenpeace won a High Court ruling which overturned an earlier consultation on nuclear power. Mr Justice Sullivan called the first consultation “manifestly unfair” and “unlawful”, adding that it was “seriously flawed” and “manifestly inadequate” because insufficient information had been made available by the Government for participants to make an “intelligent response”. Now we know the second consultation was also fixed.

The MRSB ruling has been 13 months in coming. In May this year Greenpeace made a Freedom of Information request to DBERR asking for release of documents and correspondence relating to the Greenpeace complaint. The aim was to ascertain whether John Hutton’s department had attempted to exert any undue pressure on the MRSB while the sensitive EDF takeover of British Energy was being negotiated. So far DBERR has refused to hand over any such documentation – citing “Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act, which applies where disclosure of information would or would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.” Despite subsequent letters from Greenpeace lawyers, DBERR will still not release the requested documentation.

Greenpeace lawyers this week sent another email to BERR requesting details of any pressure the department put on MRSB in relation to content or timing of the Board’s ruling. Greenpeace is now demanding the immediate publication of any such documents so any question of undue pressure being applied can be addressed and, presumably, discounted.

OLR demonstrated its faith and trust in the judgement the MRSB when it entered the trade body’s awards for this year.

And it goes on. But I think you get the picture. Obviously, I do not share Greenpeace's views on nuclear power, but that is beside the point. They were quite right to draw attention to this consultation sham. It demonstrates breathtaking arrogance on the part of the government to think they could get away with this, and breathtaking incompetence and chicanery on the part of OLR.

At the very least, OLR should now be banned from bidding for government polling, focus group or consultation contracts.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

is anybody suprised ?

CMQ said...

Sorry, what's the story here?

Labour cronies creaming taxpayer funding to provide regime friendly services is nothing new. If someone in authority/power was actually prepared to do something about it, that would be newsworthy.

Pogo said...

I love the irony of Greepeace complaining about bias and innacuracy.

Anonymous said...

"It seems that Gordon Brown's government should be making good use of the Consultation Institute's training courses"

As I annoyed, fed-up tax payer that is just what I want to hear, Iain.

I assume these "training courses" are not cheap and secondly pointless and common sense? And you a Tory as now expecting the government to throw more money to "consultants" GREAT

James Higham said...

She also organises the Citizens Juries events. I'm not going to put any spin on today's news.

I ran an expose on them some time back and they are not good. Throw them in the CP/regionalization basket.

Quite worrying, for me, are N10's guidelines for the Nine Regional Focus Groups, i.e. the EU concept of regions]:

"Participants will be given facts and figures that are independently verified, they can look at real issues and solutions, just as a jury examines a case. And where these citizens juries are held the intention is to bring people together to explore where common ground exists."

It doesn't take much brainpower to see what that augurs.

Unsworth said...

It's a Hydra. Cut off OLR and it will appear in another guise. These people are joined at the hip.

Breather said...

Smokers haven't got any rights.
Smoking should be made a capital offence. Oh, wait a minute...

Classical reader (not Boris) said...

I bet Plato witnessed the same trickery all those years ago (approx 2500), as they appear in his great work 'Republic' in all but modern name.

Not a sheep said...

...and this is surprising? Labour know what answers they want, they know they are right so they will manipulate the facts to ensure they get the correct result - easy...

Word verification - esyzay

Dave H. said...

So what?

Blatant dishonesty by Gordon is hardly news. All the independent reports, enquiries etc. have had a pre-arranged outcome. On the rare occasions they do reach a conclusion that doesn't suit him (Badger cull, cannabis reclassification) they are simply ignored.

I remember Gordon (in respect of a replacement for Trident) saying:

The time for a democratic discussion is after the government has announced its decision."

He may have meant this is the normal order for parliamentary business but, from the way he said it, you knew exactly what the sinister creep* meant.

*restrained substitute for other word beginning with c.

golden rose said...

I don't know anything about this nuclear energy consultation process, but the Greenpeace press release raises some wider issues of interest.

It seems to me that we need to balance the apparent strength added to the moral argument (which comes from being seen to have engaged in some kind of consultation exercise), with the need for commensurate care to be taken with the due process of the consultation procedure (from which this moral weight is derived).

The potential for abuse of process does exist in many settings, especially where there is the prospect of personal gain, whether political and/or financial.

The risk of this may be highest where power is dispersed unequally and/or where one entity feels that they do 'know best'. Sham consultation for what the sham creator feels are good reasons is still sham consultation.

Equally, there is always the risk that the all-knowing-entity is not quite as all-knowing as they believe they are.

Hence, the need for clear due process safeguards which cannot be overriden by those who might be tempted to pull rank.

Summer said...

Is there anything decent and honest in this country anymore? What proportion of the country have their 'snouts in the taxpayers trough'?

Seems to me there is loads of room for public sector spending custs!!!

Come on Grodon - you demand petrol prices should go down, and we demand you lower public spending!!!

Tony Sharp said...

Greenpeace as usual are talking absolute rubbish when they claim wind is cheaper than nuclear.

The government appears to have fixed a consultation, but that does not justify Greenpeace selectively citing a document that is five years old and ignoring the higher cost of implementing and subsidising wind power.

Anonymous said...

Government also gave grants to Shelter to produce information booklets on housing need in areas where eco-town submissions had been received - of course this was to help inform the debate!
Local Councils opposing the proposals would be hauled over the coals if they spent public money trying to persuade the public to hold a particular view - it is against the law.

golden rose said...

In the spirit of "two easy lessons", I comment further. There follows a handy cut out and keep guide to avoiding some common consultation pitfalls.

1. Establish clearly what it is you are seeking views on. For example, if person x thinks it is christmas decorations, while person y thinks it is a new year party, you may have problems reconciling the feedback you receive.

2. Establish clear lines of communications. For example, if person x thinks feedback should go to Dr Sensible, while person y has been told to go to Dr Smart, you may have problems.

3. Make clear the date by which everyone is to get back to you. Examples hopefully not needed for this one.

4. If you are not sure what someone's view is, try ASKING THEM. Hardly nuclear physics, but some people seem not to know this one.

5. If at all possible, try not to incur expenditure or make irreversible decisions prior to the end of the consultation period. This is where para.3 above is at its most useful.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why you should think, Iain, that the nuclear power consultation sham is more worrying than the DOH one. Personally, I find it equally of concern when a government is rigging the consultation process in order to justify further restricting a legal activity. Public policy built on deceit is inexcusable and it surely doesn't matter what the issue in question is.