Friday, August 22, 2008

Towards true consultation

I am gradually coming to the conclusion that "consultation" is one of the most abused words in the policy lexicon. What it means is the agency which must consult will develop a "consultation document" which contains a large number of half-truths and policy options that it supports. It then releases this for "consultation" to a suitably balanced selection of groups who can be relied upon to contradict one-another. It then amends any obvious flaws in its original document and releases this as consulted upon policy. The agency gets what it wants, the groups are silenced and the politician can then say the process was fair.

Well it wasn't.

The process is completely dishonest and its time more effort was put into making consultation a bit less of a circus and a bit more bloody democratic.

This is, admittedly, quite difficult. Most topics which are consulted upon are highly technical. The average person is simply not equipped to take part in the debate at all. However simply putting everyone together in a room and capturing what everyone says is no way to give such people a fair shot at being listened to.

In my view true consultation must be a form of Hegellian Delphi process. The first stage of consultation should be to establish the degree of expertise held by those who wish to express a view. This should be done by setting a completely independent panel of experts to assess a first round of written submissions and score respondents in terms of the sophistication of their response. The independent panel should also determine the common issues and the range of disagreement on these issues. This will produce a two dimensional graph with expertise on the Y-axis and range of views on the X-axis.

The independent panel should then appoint expert viewpoint leaders based on the diversity of views expressed. That is the viewpoint leader will have the highest score on the Y-axis and all those with similar views on the X-axis will be referred to the Viewpoint leader to provide material.

The agency should then convene a meeting of Viewpoint Leaders to discuss the main issues in question. The object is to determine the number of positions that exist on each issue in question. Each Viewpoint Leader can refine their own position upon exposure to opposing views. Where Viewpoint Leaders find themselves in agreement with other Viewpoint Leaders on any one issue this is resolved into a shared position.

The next stage is the construction of a survey questionairre booklet in order to determine the level of support each Position has among the public. Each position is briefly explained in writing by the Viewpoint leader or leaders. The text is then edited to improve comprehension and reviewed by the leaders to ensure no meaning is lost. The questionairre will be constructed on a scoring basis such that issue will have a total of 10 points which respondents can allocate to each position. The Viewpoint Leaders then review the overall questionairre to sign it off.

The Agency then tenders independent survey companies to develop a survey frame construction methodology. These are reviewed by the Viewpoint Leaders who can only veto a tenderer. The Agency then commissions the survey which must have a margin of error of 2% at the 99th confidence interval, i.e involve 4,356 respondents. The frame is contacted to obtain agreement to take part in the survey. Respondents are then mailed the questionairre booklet. They have two weeks to consider their scores and do any further research they care to do. At the end of this period the surveyors call those that have not submitted scores online, and visit those who have not been contacted by phone.

The positions are now scored and votes allocated to the Viewpoint Leaders by position. The Agency calls a meeting of View point Leaders to discuss the issues. The final text is determined by the Leaders with votes being used to resolve any conflicts.

The result should be a policy which has the support of the population behind it.

While this process may seem expensive and protracted, I frankly don't think it is any more expensive or protracted than the bullshit processes being used by New Zealand Government agencies today.

The only problem with it is that it makes politicians redundant as it throws into question the extent to which "representative democracy" actually represents the population.

And we couldn't have that could we?

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