Andreas Whittam Smith: Don't knock consultation. Give it a go

The trigger for discussion is the availability of information on the Web. Instead of mocking, the media should take the government at its word

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Goodness me, how the decision by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne to consult the public about reducing Government spending has been ridiculed. When Mr Osborne stated that he was drawing on lessons learned from places such as Canada in the 1990s, up popped a Canadian professor working at Oxford University, Donald Savoie, to say that Mr Osborne's consultation is "definitely snake oil". According to this sage, Canadian politicians who have been boasting of their success in consulting the public "want you to believe that they were braver and more creative than they really were". Then Lord Lawson, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer – and incidentally a hero of mine – dismissed the idea as a PR ploy. This newspaper called it a "wizard wheeze".

Go to the text of what Mr Osborne said. It is not just the sheer size of the reduction in public spending that is striking. It is also its nature. Under consideration are "new and radical approaches to public service provision". We are told that the scale of the challenge presents an opportunity to "take a more fundamental look at the role of government in society and how it can fulfill that role". Of course the cynic can say that "new and radical" simply means very large cuts. Perhaps so; we shall find out. Meanwhile I choose to read Mr Osborne's words as an expression of ambition. If the exercise truly is to "shape the role of the state in the future" then it has constitutional significance. It would be altering the relationship with the citizen. And if that were the case, then as with all major changes of this kind, consultation should be much wider than it would be for a conventional spending review.

The critics were too busy mocking Mr Osborne's approach to notice one of his important announcements. Admittedly he slipped it into his speech as if it were an afterthought. He calmly stated that the Coalition has ended the previous government's system of targets. Thus is dismantled Labour's main method of securing delivery of public services. It set targets for every stage in the process. It rewarded those who achieved them and punished those that didn't. Unfortunately managers quickly learnt how to "game" the system. Cheating on targets became endemic throughout the state sector. At the same time, enforceable targets tended to generate an atmosphere of bullying because everything seemed to turn on meeting them. The recent report on Stafford Hospital, which is now to be the subject of a public inquiry, amply illustrated these features. Nurses complained of being bullied and in turn they bullied their patients.

In this internet age, however, it is not necessary to issue an invitation to stimulate a public discussion. The trigger is the availability of sufficient information made easily accessible through the Web. If this condition is met, it will take place anyway. I am not aware, for instance, that BP has set about organising a discussion on how to seal its oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet advice has been freely offered by qualified experts as well as by cranks. Numerous web sites discuss progress every day. People can see what is going on; they recognise that BP's problems are a national emergency and they want to do something about it.

Transfer this cause and effect to Britain's budget problems. In particular, can we see "what is going on"? Until now, the answer has been "no, we cannot". But go back to the text. "All departments will publish business plans". In other words, we shall be able to judge the success of individual government departments. "These plans", the statement goes on, "will also include the key statistics and data that the public can use to hold departments to account for spending money efficiently and effectively." Moreover, all new items of central government spending over £25,000 are to be published online from November 2010. When sneering commentators publish their books on the coalition in 10 years' time, they will call this a revolution.

People are going to get the relevant information. So when, for instance, they are disappointed by cuts in particular lines of expenditure, they will be able to compare them with other spending commitments. They will have the knowledge upon which they can build a case if they want to make one. They can cause questions to be asked in Parliament. Perhaps they will only complain, but even this is valuable. They would at least test the government's case.

As it happens, the government is not going to rely only upon spontaneous public discussion. It has also issued an invitation. Who can join in? I list the groups mentioned by Mr. Osborne. First there is what he calls "the brightest and best individuals". They will be able to join a newly formed Spending Review Challenge Group of experts – both from within government and outside – to act as independent challengers and champions for departments throughout the process. In addition the Government intends to organise a series of events over the summer to discuss and debate various aspects of public spending. To these meetings will be invited "members of think tanks and interested groups, academics, representatives of local government, business and trade unions, and public sector experts and watchdogs such as the Audit Commission".

This obviously doesn't include me. I can pin my hopes solely on the vague promise that "over the next few weeks, the Government will begin a process to engage and involve the whole country in the difficult decisions that will have to be taken". But I can also make some suggestions about what the Government should do to facilitate debate and what role the media might play.

In fact, unless the Government publishes the public accounts as a series of simple blocks of revenue and expenditure via the internet that people could use to construct their own ways of reaching the desired outcome, nothing will happen. There must be online decision making trees that allow users to see that if, say, such-and-such an activity is ring-fenced, then these are the consequences for the rest of public spending, or for a particular category of it.

For the electorate to be involved, it has to be shown how to play the game. Each item would need two numbers – one to capture the financial impact of any change, the second to indicate the employment consequences. There would also have to be some way of estimating the effects over time. For after all, the challenge is to reduce public spending in a way that solves the problem once and for all and does the least harm to jobs.

What might the media do? For a start, stop ridiculing the idea of consultation. Generally speaking, academics and journalists are like the journeymen of earlier times, skilled craftsmen who work for masters (the head of the university department or the editor of the newspaper or programme). They don't employ anybody themselves. When we make decisions, we never have to carry people with us. So we have no experience of the crucial role that consultation plays in many activities. We simply don't get it.

Instead of mocking, the media should take the government at its word. Call Mr. Osborne's bluff. Mount a consultation. For through our newspapers and our programmes and our online websites, we can do this much more effectively than the Government despite its vast resources. So I say to my fellow journalists and editors – try it and see if we can make it work. If we don't succeed, what have we lost? Nothing at all except our reputation for negativity.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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