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24 March 2011

A seat at the table...

Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are elected by the public to serve the public. But, are the views and experiences of this 'public' limited to being expressed in the ballot box or are our political leaders interested in ongoing consultation with us to achieve more, together?  

First Minister Peter Robinson, quoted in the Belfast Telegraph, claims to be very interested: "I want there to be consultation, I think it is important that we do have a connection with the community." Indeed, whether they are an ardent proponent or reluctant complier, our politicians seem to recognise that public consultation has become an important part of the wider policy-making process. Most accept that good consultation has the potential to make policies more effective by allowing government to tap into wider sources of information, alerting policy makers to possible unintended consequences, and monitoring existing policy. 

However, the first minister's comments came in response to questions raised in Stormont this week about the financial implications of consultation. The Civic Forum, a consultative body made up of business people and voluntary sector representatives, is currently under review due (in part) to it costing the tax payer £500,000 a year.  DUP MLA Jonathan Bell claimed that "the excessively bureaucratic Civic Forum… did not represent value to the public purse previously and certainly does not represent value as we sit as the only region of the UK still in recession". The first minister responded by saying that consultation and the value that came with it was still possible without such "expensive machinery". 

Yet, financial constraints are not the only obstacles facing effective engagement. In Northern Ireland there are more than 70 written consultations presently active across all departments. While written consultations have advantages in being a relatively cheap and procedurally simple option they also present many barriers to "connecting with the community".  

There are no caps to the number of groups or individuals able to submit to written consultations; however issues over how widely they are publicised and how active a role the departments take in seeking out responses from relevant groups and individuals regularly arise. In addition, the sheer volume of consultations and the work required to produce a written submission limit the engagement of groups and individuals with fewer resources at their disposal, including churches and other faith groups.  

No doubt, written consultations will always play some role in the overall process but other options need to be explored. There are good examples of direct consultations, whether in the form of one-off events or as part of an established forum (freed of the "expensive machinery") that allow access to decision makers and a process that is more open, interactive and often pro-active.   Having a seat at the table is a great leveler; reducing inequalities surrounding historical influence and administrative and research capacity.   

Contributions from a wide spectrum of civic groups, including faith groups, enhance discourse and ultimately the resulting policy. With many groups still struggling to find the tables around which they can add their voice or to keep up with the ever increasing demands of written consultations, it is clear more has to be done. Developing a truly open consultative process that is effective must become a priority if our political leaders are serious about building an inclusive society where people take ownership of their role in the shared future we are trying to create.  

The responsibility on the part of government to seek out input from the public and provide wider access to decision-making processes is vital but individual Christians and churches have a responsibility to step up and refuse to be passive in this process as well. If no obvious avenues are being offered to us we have to challenge government on that and think creatively about ways around our lack of resources, financial constraints on the part of government and any barriers to our inclusion in round table discussions. We must work together as far as shared aims allow, pooling expertise and resources. And by being willing to engage on less traditionally 'church' issues we can also demonstrate our commitment to building a stronger society that may open up doors that have previously been closed.