What advocacy group has not contributed to a policy consultation? Only to find that nothing seems to have been done with the input.
This need not be a problem. It is a formal procedure in which stakeholders show what they think about a decision or law.
In recent years we have seen an increase in consultation sessions or stakeholder dialogues from central government. I am a strong proponent of stakeholder dialogues. The dialogues should better involve stakeholders in policy or new legislation. In recent months I have had the opportunity to attend several such dialogues from different ministries. What is striking is that many of these sessions are so one-sided in nature that many participants came out of them more cynical and disillusioned than they went in. While actually putting in time and energy from the government. Where does it go wrong?
How does it work?
A ministry organizes a meeting about a new policy such as a carbon cap, renewable energy or new policies in the telecom sector, for example. The sessions follow a similar pattern: there is a presentation of the proposed regulations and then those present in the room can comment on them. What is striking about the latter part is that it is often extremely tightly directed and hardly any responses are given to stakeholder comments. To those invited, therefore, it looks like a live version of the written consultation process that many advocates are familiar with. It is a kind of black box where you give input and have no idea in what way it will be used. And which sometimes generates more questions than answers.
The stakeholder dialogues on new policies often ended remarkably quickly, and when I spoke to the various participants afterward they all said the same thing. Namely that they felt obliged to attend but had no expectation that anything would be done with their input.
Thus the stakeholder dialogue degenerates into a compulsory exercise in which everyone plays an uncomfortable role without actually improving anything. Some then experience this as a similar “ritual dance” to consultations.
Although it is to be appreciated that ministries give all stakeholders the opportunity to react to new policy proposals, it should not degenerate into sham involvement. This is a missed opportunity, as it does not contribute to better policy and threatens support for policy.
I am well aware of the downside, or rather the risk, of dialogue. Parties in the room can use it in possible legal proceedings later in the process. But if that is a serious risk, then it should be explored whether it can be legally overcome.
Better policies are made by regularly questioning your own assumptions and learning from the perspectives of other stakeholders. In a constantly changing world, stakeholder dialogue allows policymakers in ministries to test their policies before they are implemented. The value of good stakeholder dialogue is also that it results in higher levels of mutual understanding or better insights.