I don’t expect outpourings of sympathy, but spare a thought today for the Ministry of Justice officials charged with reading responses to the department’s consultation ‘Transforming Legal Aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system’. (Yes, that’s the title of Chris Grayling’s proposals to chop £220m by introducing price-competitive tendering and other measures.)
Call me a gullible sap, but I don’t expect the officials simply to hit ‘select all’ and ‘delete’. Rather, they will painstakingly extract all points considered relevant and pare them down to bare essentials and collate them in to a summary to be published alongside the official response. Finally, they will edit this down into a red-box version tailored to the secretary of state’s attention span.
Naturally, positive feedback is more likely to survive the editing process.
In theory it’s possible that Grayling will confound expectations by accepting the unanimous expert criticism of his plans but I don’t know anyone who seriously expects a U-turn. In fact I don’t know anyone who sees the exercise as more than a box-ticking gesture, a chore that has to be carried out so that a minister can deploy with a clear conscience the words ‘the government has consulted widely…’.
Even some senior ministers seem embarrassed by the sham. Hence the interest around Westminster in the modish concept of ‘wiki government’, the idea of seeking public opinion, ideas and contributions throughout the stages of a policy cycle rather than just in response to a minister’s brainwave.
Earlier this week a report from the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee enthused about ‘open source’ policy as a way of ‘embracing a new relationship with the citizen’.
There were important caveats. First, it is essential to integrate ongoing public engagement with the policymaking process, not run it as a rival stream. Care must be taken not to give disproportionate weight to inputs gathered through trendy online methods. And, most important, ministers should not abdicate leadership by thinking they can outsource policymaking.
To be honest it’s hard to see how any wiki scheme could bridge the apparently irreconcilable gap between the justice secretary and the legal profession on the current legal aid proposals. But it might have toned down some of the dafter ideas, explored the assertion that the public had lost faith in legal aid – and perhaps cut the need for useless pen-pushing in Petty France.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
Follow Michael on Twitter