There are different ways to hold meetings and debates directly with the NGOs and the public. You can develop national ministerial road-shows going out to regions so that policy isn’t always perceived as being concentrated in Riga.
Paul Greening, public participation expert (Great Britain), in an interview with Ieva Raubisko, Radio Free Europe
While a number of non-governmental organisations in Latvia have been successful and efficient, others haven’t always been able to achieve much. What is your opinion about the current cooperation between ministries and non-governmental organisations?
In general, it varies from ministry to ministry. It depends on a number of factors, including the resources within in each ministry, the relationships they have with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and the capacity of NGOs to undertake dialogue with government. Another factor is the international contacts that many NGOs have, which make them stronger and thus enables them to better influence the dialogue between the government and civil society. Clearly, there are some areas of policy where the NGO sector is much more developed than in others. Of course, there are NGOs that arise over specific issues. That may be a local issue with a short term of life. Once the issue is resolved, NGOs diminish. Some organisations don’t have a very good capacity. Though they begin with a lot of enthusiasm, as they don’t have lots of resources to continue they stop working after a short period time.
What methodologies and techniques would you suggest to boost NGO participation in the process of policy-making?
Maybe I can begin with the use of new technologies. Of course, I am aware that in Latvia not all NGOs have access to the Internet, but, nonetheless, I think this is an area that should be developed more. For example, United Kingdom ministries can contact NGOs on a regular basis to notify them through e-mail of upcoming consultations and point them to where the consultation document exists.
Another way is to hold public meetings and public debates directly with both NGOs and the public. There are different ways to do that. For example, you can develop national ministerial road-shows so that policy isn’t always perceived as being concentrated in Riga. Ministers can go out to the regions with a structured format for a public dialogue to enable people in the regions to express their views on a particular issue.
Also, public consultation documents – when they are published prior to the legislative phase – should be set out in a way which makes it easy for people to, first of all, digest and read, but also to offer their opinions. Maybe you could have a questionnaire for people to provide their views on a particular issue; maybe you can invite contributions via e-mail, or maybe you can set up a video-conference dialogue to supplement the consultation and so on… The toolkit will include many more ways of supplementing conventional communication strategies with more elaborate forms.
Communications strategies and implementation methods should be universal for all ministries, shouldn’t they?
Yes, they should. One of the complaints in my discussions with NGOs was that their relationships with particular ministries and officials were haphazard. They were lucky if they had a good relationship with one official that they could channel their views to. But if that official moved on, they no longer had a contact person there. In certain ministries, officials weren’t very receptive because they were busy. Therefore, I think it is very important that the toolkit is applicable to all ministries so that it creates a minimum of standards for public participation across the government, and so lessens the fluctuation of standards from one ministry to another.
You mentioned the need to have clear and simple public consultation documents in the pre-legislative phase. Many NGOs here complain about not being able to join the policy-making process early enough. What has to be done to enable citizen groups to consult with ministries earlier, not just when the bill is almost ready?
There are two aspects to this. One is the internal machinery of the government, and the other is direct contact with the public and NGOs.
Beginning with the first, there is scope for the communications departments and the policy areas to work more closely. For example, one of the ideas I have for the toolkit is to set up some kind of structure where there are committees on particular important issues where both the policy makers and the communications representatives are involved. Thus they can gain an overview of the issue, and, therefore, communication with the public can happen at a much earlier stage in the policy-making process. There should also be a system where the communications departments and policy makers notify each other in advance if they anticipate that an issue is likely to be legislated on.
And then there are the external elements. Prior to the draft legislation, the government should put out more documents for public consultation. The communication departments should structure these policy documents so that they are accessible and easy to read. There should be more green papers and white papers published one year or 18 months before the actual start of the legislative process to allow NGO and public input early on.
Quite recently, we have seen positive changes in legislation such as provision in the Rules of Procedure of the Cabinet of Ministers that NGO representatives can participate in the capacity of advisors in the meetings of state secretaries of ministries. Also, the Law on Municipalities was amended in order to allow everyone, not just local officials, to participate in the meetings of municipal committees. What other rules are necessary? Is there a need for special legislation to regulate cooperation between the government and NGOs?
I would like to begin with a small challenge to the premise that there needs to be legislation. My feeling is that, at this stage, there would be resistance from ministries to introducing rigid structure or legislation because the pressures are too much at the moment in terms of resources etc. It should be a step-by-step approach. I think the next stage, which I am involved in, is to provide practical guidance and advice through the toolkit, which will both encourage ministries to use public involvement and consultation more and also provide methodological guidance on how that might be achieved. Once that has been embedded, the relationship between the government and the NGO sector will be at a stage where minimal standards can be introduced.
What procedures regulate public consultation in the United Kingdom?
At a national level there are four essential mechanisms in Britain. There is the Central Government Code of Practice on Written Consultation, which is not part of legislation, but is nonetheless binding on ministries. Then there is a Compact Code that was developed by the UK equivalent of the Latvian Ministry of the Interior. This is an agreement between the NGO community and voluntary sector and the government about the minimum requirements for consultation. The third element is statutory requirements to consult on particular issues. For example, under the legislation for the mayor of London, there is a statutory requirement for the mayor to hold a question time meeting with the public twice a year. And then there is a fourth mechanism which is part of the Regulatory Impact Assessment arrangements. Basically, this is a requirement on ministries to consult the relevant NGOs and sections of society that will be affected by a particular regulation in the making.
How well are these codes observed? Do the government departments follow them strictly?
They have worked very well.Last year, we did a first-year evaluation of the effectiveness of the Code of Practice by a survey of Departments. What we discovered was that about 80 per cent of consultations complied with the Code in its first year of operation.
But when I first joined the Cabinet Office in 1998 as the Deputy Head of Consultation Policy to evaluate existing practice in the United Kingdom, I found that — maybe as in Latvia now — there was variable performance. For example, some ministries would just consult for two weeks on a policy, and there were others that would consult for much longer. First of all, we identified that there was a need to regulate the consultation procedures. I co-drafted the Code of Practice, and one of the key elements was a minimum 12-week period for public consultation. The draft Code of Practice was itself put out for consultation, and we received comments from the NGO sector and public in general about what they thought should be in the document.
Initially, there was some pressure, particularly externally, for the code to be a legal document. At the same time, there was some pressure from within government for it not to be mandatory, but just to be a guide. In the end, we came out with a formula, which was a compromise between the two. It is binding on ministries. There is a public expectation that ministries will follow the Code of Practice. If they do not, according to UK law practice, consultations can be subject to judicial review, which means the ministry could be taken to court.
That’s a very good motivation indeed. But should Latvian ministries be encouraged to observe the rules of consultation, as the ministry officials cannot be taken to court just for their unwillingness to consult with the public?
In that case, maybe there needs to be a legal element to it. Still, the Code of Practice needs to be a set of standards rather than a rulebook. It has to be a set of standards that works in practice and does not place unreasonable burdens on the ministries.
One lesson for Latvia is that these things do not happen overnight. You set up the framework, and you then monitor this to see whether it’s improving. You supplement the framework with guidance, so it’s not just a stick but you have a carrot as well. It’s a two-pronged approach to the issue.