Government consultations are too short and implementation too slow, National Audit Office says

A report on the Compact by the spending watchdog says too many consultations last less than 12 weeks, the ideal length of time suggested in the agreement

National Audit Office
National Audit Office

The proportion of central government consultations running for less than 12 weeks more than doubled between 2011 and 2013, according to a report from the National Audit Office.

The spending watchdog’s report on central government’s implementation of the Compact, published yesterday, says that government departments have been slow to implement recommendations the NAO made in report published in January 2012, despite an apparent lack of widespread barriers.

The report says that 40 per cent of consultations run by nine government departments in 2011 ran for less than 12 weeks – the ideal length of time suggested in the Compact – but this proportion rose to 76 per cent in the period between July and December 2012, and to 81 per cent in the period from December 2012 to May 2013.

This was after the Cabinet Office published new consultation principles in July 2012 that said consultations of less than 12 weeks could be appropriate in some cases where meaningful engagement had already taken place with relevant parties.

The 2012 report said that departments needed to improve their implementation of the Compact, the voluntary agreement that sets out how public bodies and voluntary sector organisations should treat each other, and that there was more the Cabinet Office should do in its oversight of it.

The new report says that the Compact plays an important role in ensuring a positive relationship between government and the voluntary sector, and that the prominence and quality of the Compact statement made in the business plans of the 14 government departments studied has improved over the past two years.

It says that nine of the 14 departments included information in their 2013 business plans that went beyond the minimum set out in central guidance, compared with five in 2012.

But it says: "Looking across departments, progress in implementing our recommendations has been slow. We consider that progress against each recommendation in our 2012 report has been, at best, adequate.

"Departments’ lack of progress in implementing the recommendations in our

2012 report is surprising, because they did not report widespread barriers to their implementation."

It says there was a lack of consensus about the factors that prevented implementation of the 2012 recommendations, but that the most commonly reported barrier was constrained resources.

It says that departments could in particular improve how they monitor and report their implementation of the Compact, review complaints procedures so that issues relevant to the Compact are directed to the correct team, and consider carrying out periodic reviews of their implementation of the Compact.

The report says that most departments have made little progress in strengthening their arrangements for monitoring Compact complaints.

But it says that the Cabinet Office has shown a continuing commitment to the Compact and has made good progress in implementing the 2012 recommendations, including setting up a cross-department Compact group and funding the representative charity Compact Voice to review and report on departmental business plan Compact statements.

The report’s recommendations include that departments should periodically review how they monitor their implementation of the Compact, and that the Cabinet Office should support departments by sharing best practice for handling Compact complaints.

A Compact Voice spokeswoman said that Compact implementation had improved considerably since the 2012 report, but there was more to be done.

She said it was worrying that departments were increasingly consulting for shorter periods and that Compact Voice continued to encourage meaningful engagement with relevant stakeholders.

"Compact Voice will continue to flag short timescales to departments that are raised as an issue with us by our members," she said. "We will continue to request that departments publish a rationale for these where they have not, and outline clearly how they have engaged with departments."

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