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Civil servants told to consult ‘in plain English and with a purpose’

Civil servants have been told to use plain English and avoid acronyms when launching public consultations, to make them easier to understand and to answer.

In the government’s updated ‘consultation principles’ document for 2016 – first published in 2012 to improve the way it consults by taking no a more “proportionate and targeted” stance – it said public sector organisations must be clearer on the questions they are asking. This includes avoiding lengthy documents and considering merging related topics.

It also warned civil servants that they must not “consult for the sake of it”, with all documents needing a purpose. Campaigners often label consultations, of which there are 96 currently going around, as a box-ticking exercise designed to pretend the government is seeking views on pre-determined policy.

The document said: “Ask departmental lawyers whether you have a legal duty to consult.  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.”

Whitehall is also starting to push for digital, with one of the principles suggesting that consultations could often use “new digital tools” to ensure documents are an ongoing process rather than just about formal responses.

In that same vein, it outlined that all consultations must be published on, the government website, after seeking collective agreement.

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin MP, publishing the updated guidance, said: “We will use more digital methods to involve a wider group of consultees at an earlier stage in the policy forming process. We will make it easier for the public to contribute and feed in their views, and we will try harder to use clear language and plain English in consultation documents.

“We will also reduce the risk of 'consultation fatigue' by making sure that we consult only on issues that are genuinely undecided.”

Responses to documents must then be published within 12 weeks of the consultation and on the same page on to facilitate scrutiny, explaining how these have informed public policy.

“These principles are intended to produce clear guidance to government departments on the conduct of consultations. They have been amended in the light of comments from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and demonstrate the government's desire to engage more effectively with the public,” Letwin said.

The updated guidance follows prime minister David Cameron’s speech at the Civil Service Awards in July, during which he said communications with the public should be “human, clear, simple, helpful and professional”.

“This means explaining complexity in everyday terms and translating jargon into simple English.  If we can’t do that, we won’t communicate,” he said.

During the event, he put forward a new ‘award for clarity’ in an attempt to recognise and reward clarity where it exists, setting it as an example to be followed across departments and agencies.

(Top image c. Stefan Rousseau)


George Reid   19/01/2016 at 12:55

By and large, the much-maligned civil service leads the way these days on plain English (awards confirm this). The real problem with consultations - by anyone - is the absence of a transparent methodology for considering responses.

Elspeth Nicol   15/02/2016 at 17:10

There's no point in consulting as the Government will do what it planned to do anyway. For exampe, consulting on raising the cap on earnings before having to repay student loans.

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