‘Principles of national consultation’

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Last week, a press statement from the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs and Governance published some draft electoral laws which it said were ‘the first set of amended laws being finalized and circulated for the public and national stakeholders’ viewing’. And the death knell suggested by this formulation elicited a smile. Understanding what consultations ought to be, my concern was not alleviated by the statement that, ‘The Ministry will also collect and coordinate feedback from individuals and organizations, and compile these for the Government’s review’ within six (6) weeks.’

If governments are to be considered legitimate, elections rules must be collaborative outcomes. Traditionally, the process of consultation is not taken seriously in Guyana, but on this important issue, business as usual is unacceptable, and already the Guyana Elections Commission, the ‘independent’ constitutional body responsible for delivering credible elections, has been sidelined from the important initiating activities. The proposed amendments themselves are important but what is critical is that there be a political consensus on any new measures. Therefore, the opposition and civil society ‘gat de wok cut out fu dem’ and this requires that their interventions are properly structured.

There are many suggested best practices principles. The Consultations Institute says that ‘For consultation to yield its true benefits and to assist in the process of evidence based decision-making, it needs to take account of seven Best Practice principles: Integrity, Visibility, Accessibility, Transparency, Disclosure, Fair Interpretation, Publication’ (The-Cosultation-Charter-2017-edition.pdf). Given our concern with national government consultation, the 2018 British Cabinet Office principles of consultations below – edited somewhat – appears appropriate. (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/ attachment_data/fil e/691383/Consultation _Principles__1_.pdf.)

Consultations should be clear and concise
Use plain English and avoid acronyms. Be clear what questions you are asking and limit the number of questions to those that are necessary. Make them easy to understand and easy to answer. Avoid lengthy documents when possible and consider merging those on related topics.

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Consultations should have a purpose
Do not consult for the sake of it. Take consultation responses into account when taking policy forward. Consult about policies or implementation plans when the development of the policies or plans is at a formative stage. Do not ask questions about issues on which you already have a final view.

Consultations should be informative
Give enough information to ensure that those consulted understand the issues and can give informed responses. Include validated assessments of the costs and benefits of the options being considered when possible.

Consultations are only part of a process of engagement
Consider whether informal iterative consultation is appropriate, using new digital tools and open, collaborative approaches. Consultation is not just about formal documents and responses. It is an on-going process.

Consultations should last for a proportionate amount of time.
Take into account the nature and impact of the proposal. Consulting for too long will unnecessarily delay policy development. Consulting too quickly will not give enough time for consideration and will reduce the quality of responses.

Consultations should be targeted
Consider the full range of people, affected by the policy, and whether representative groups exist. Consider targeting specific groups and ensure they are aware of the consultation and can access it. Consider how to tailor consultation to the needs and preferences of particular groups, that may not respond to traditional consultation methods.

Consultations should take account of the groups being consulted
Consult stakeholders in a way that suits them: charities may need more time to respond than businesses.

Consultations should be agreed before publication
Seek collective agreement before publishing a written consultation, particularly when consulting on new policy proposals.

Consultation should facilitate scrutiny
Publish any response on the same page as the original consultation, and ensure it is clear when the government has responded to the consultation. Explain the responses that have been received from consultees and how these have informed the policy. State how many responses have been received.

Government responses to consultations should be published in a timely fashion
Publish responses within 12 weeks of the consultation or provide an explanation why this is not possible. Where consultation concerns a statutory instrument publish responses before or at the same time as the instrument is laid. Allow appropriate time between closing the consultation and implementing policy or legislation.

Consultation exercises should not generally be launched during local or national election periods.

Unless exceptional circumstances make a consultation absolutely essential – for example, for safeguarding public health.

Of course, when considering socio/political issues in Guyana, one must begin by recognising its largely bicommunal ethnic configuration. An important aspect of this is the absence of a substantial united public political opinion upon which ‘normal democratic’ politics rests. Therefore, if the reforms are to acquire national legitimacy they will ideally, at the very least, have to win the support of a majority of citizens in each of the larger ethnic groups. The above principles are attractive to me because even at this stage they can be tweaked to achieve a consensual result.



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