A reminder won't go astray

tom elkinsYesterday, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion about working with the coalition government, which had been organised by the Equality and Diversity Forum, one of Compact Voice’s board organisations. I spoke alongside representatives from Stonewall and End Violence Against Women, and we all offered different perspectives about working with the government.
I talked about the relatively unique position we are in – we have support from all the main political parties, commitment from the highest levels of government, and inclusion in every government department’s business plan. We aren’t campaigning for change or new policies. Instead, our focus is on implementation – itself not always an easy ask and with different levels of success.
I was asked about changes to consultation processes and the recent speech made by the Prime Minister. Did this spell the end of the Compact? As we have recently pointed out both in response to this recent speech and the new code of practice on consultation, these don’t undermine the Compact as much as highlight our need to collectively hold government to account for its use.
But then I was asked a question which made me think about my own experiences of how the Compact is viewed and used. I was asked if it would be useful to point out to government departments when they may not be following the principles of the Compact. I stated that yes of course it would, that we do it as much as we can and having others do it too is tremendously useful. It’s even helpful to make explicit reference to the exact principle in question if possible (something we have tried to do with our case studies, to help demonstrate their effectiveness). My questioner continued though, concerned that doing so might be pointing out the obvious to civil servants and ministers?
A while back, a Minister reassured me that his department didn’t need to explicitly mention the Compact in a new policy document, as its spirit ran throughout. I wasn’t convinced, and stated that it helped to remind people that it was still valid, still being used, and policies were continuing to take into account its principles.
It struck me yesterday that some people might believe the Compact’s spirit does run throughout, and that not observing it can only therefore be as a result of malicious intent. Having its spirit run throughout is a notable aim, but we aren’t there yet to be so black and white about its use. In my experience, when challenged with examples of how they aren’t observing the Compact, legislators and policy makers will often be surprised, frequently amend or clarify (arguably in ways they should have volunteered without prompting), and in some instances (too many, but not as many as some might think) respond to my concerns about their compliance with the Compact by asking ‘the what?’
Rarely do we encounter instances where a deliberate decision has been made to ignore the Compact, and in those instances where people have perceived this to be the case (recently with Cabinet Office’s procurement pledge or code of practice on consultation), efforts will be made to reassure people that the Compact remains valid, and then the challenge becomes ensuring both that this commitment is carried forward, and that cynicism that it probably won’t be is addressed.
A repeated refrain from local areas has been the importance of raising awareness of the Compact, and it is our collective responsibility to remind partners that we expect its principles to be used. If they aren’t, it doesn’t necessarily suggest deliberate intent, but may be down to a lack of knowledge, competing priorities, or in some instances, maybe a lack of recognition about why it should be used. Reminding government departments that they are committed to following the principles of the Compact can be incredibly helpful and often surprisingly effective. It’s a partnership for a reason.

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