Belfast Telegraph

Cut the costs on consulting at Stormont

By Mike Nesbitt

Since devolved government was restored in 2007, your Executive has happily spent hundreds of thousands of your pounds on consultation; in fact, around £2m.

Consultation is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. But it's how it is done and the impact of the responses that determine whether consultation offers value for money, or merely affords lip-service to the concept of consultative democracy.

As the citizens of Northern Ireland may well be one of the most consulted populations on the planet, this is a major issue.

Today, I'll be leading a debate at Stormont based on the findings from a simple question I posed earlier this year.

I asked each minister how many times they had consulted since 2007, on what subject and at what cost. The answers revealed a noticeable inconsistency.

Take the Department of Social Development. It consulted 275 times in total, but on more than half of those occasions, its answer regarding cost was "Included in professional fees, no breakdown available". Other departments said it would cost too much to disaggregate the figures. That doesn't build confidence.

On the scale of big spenders, OFMDFM managed £93,185 (and 70p) consulting on a single document. Yes, it was a strategy designed to impact on every citizen, so it was right to spend what was necessary to offer everyone the chance to speak out.

On the other hand, it was the Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, something roundly rubbished, not least by a consultant advising the department, who said that, if it was her work, she would not have let it into the public domain.

What we need is a more strategic way forward. "Cross-cutting initiatives" is a buzz phrase, meaning there are issues than can only be tackled by two, or more, departments working together.

Consultation is one of those cross-cutting themes and it strikes me we could do it much better.

But, then, a leading local politician once told guests at an invitation-only dinner that good lobby groups realise that, if they wait until the consultation process begins, they are already too late.

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