Responding to Consultations

This page aims to provide generic comment on responding to consultations, rather than detailed advice about specific consultations or particular questions.

What’s required?

Understanding why the government consults about any projected policy is essential to making your response. The most cynical may say it’s purely so they can say they have consulted – but they have no intention of changing their mind no matter what responses they may receive.

Others may take it simply as an opportunity to convey their personal opinions to the powers that be, using any question as a peg on which to hang their accumulated frustration, confusion and anger at the way in which home educators have been treated over recent years.

But there is another, hopefully more constructive, way of approaching consultations, which involves a grasp of why they exist in the first place.

In general terms, the government consults and calls for evidence in order to run a suggested policy past a limited group of people who have knowledge and experience in whatever area is under consideration. Such people are usually the only ones who will invest time and effort into responding.

The government’s main aim is to find out if there is anything they have overlooked or whether there would be any unforeseen consequences to the suggestions they are about to implement.

A careful reading of the introductory section and the sections concerning the questions to which you wish to respond (even if you perceive them as leading or biased) is a good beginning. It is not necessary to respond to every question, but getting an overview of where the enquiry is going will help with individual answers and knowing how to divide up your responses appropriately.

If you are opposed to the plans being put forward, do not simply say that – a consultation is neither a referendum nor an opinion poll. What civil servants and eventually ministers need to have explained to them is why their plans will not work as intended, and why they will cause harm rather than achieving what are being put forward as “good” outcomes.

If a questions asks something like “Do you agree with the approach laid out in this section?” give a clear answer. If you agree, say ‘yes’ and then explain why; if you don’t agree, say that you don’t and give the reasons why you think it will not achieve what is intended. Avoid non-committal responses like ‘perhaps’ or ‘not really’ as these may allow civil servants to record your comments in categories which favour the desired outcome.

Campaigns

Whenever an issue catches the public’s attention, campaign groups such as Citizen Go or SumOfUs (cited only as examples, no implied criticism of either organisation) often create petitions or template letters which members of the public can sign or adopt as their own contribution to the cause. This is not the place to comment on the effectiveness or otherwise of mass responses, but it is worth noting that personalised answers to consultation questions carry a great deal more weight with the government than do template responses.

For example, the DfE announced recently that plans to regulate all out of school settings have been abandoned following 18,000 responses to their consultation. It is worth noting carefully the categories of response received. These are listed in the recently published report <add link>.

Under the heading Participation on page 4, it is stated, “The call for evidence received 3,082 online response forms…. We also received over 15,000 representations via other methods including emails, letters and petitions.”

On page 17, in the Analysis of Additional Responses section, they added, “In addition to the consultation forms submitted, we received and recorded over 15,000 free-form written responses by email and post. Almost half of these were identical automatically generated emails received as part of a CitizenGo petition, it was therefore considered unnecessary to read all of the CitizenGo petition emails in full.”

Mass petitions and copied text in response to consultations are potentially a waste of respondents’ time. A well-reasoned, carefully thought through personal response expressed in a firm but polite tone seems to be the method most likely to gain a hearing. Remember, one needs to explain why their plans are flawed, not that they are objectionable.

Practical Suggestions

Everyone has their own way of marshalling their thoughts in a situation like this, but here are some practical tips so you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed with the task a few hours before the deadline.

  • Download the documents.
  • Print them off if you’re the sort of person who prefers to read things on paper and scribble notes in the margin.
  • Read background/introductory material and all the questions through carefully, which gives you time to think about the issues before formulating your response.
  • Note down any points that come to mind.
  • In most on-line response portals, you can normally complete a proportion of your response, save it then return later. (They send you a secure password to access your file at a later stage.) This can be less stressful than trying to complete it all in one go, especially if you have a lot of distractions.
  • Some may prefer drafting answers away from the reply form, then copying and pasting them in once they’re satisfied.

Remember to supply the sources of any evidence you cite. This is always more convincing than pure anecdotal material, although that has its place. If it involves other individuals, be sure to gain their permission before quoting any personal details.