I may consult you later


I never thought I’d mention Sherry Phyllis Arnstein in this blog. To be fair, this is because I’d never heard of the lady. But then I only recently came across her Ladder of citizen participation.

Now over the years I’ve taken part in a lot of government consultations. This isn’t a party political thing; I’ve taken part in consultations which have been sent out by all three main parties in power.

Admittedly the government department I’ve dealt with most has been MAFF/Defra but I cannot imagine that the other heads of the hydra of government bureaucracy are all that much different.

The process is simple.

The civil service decides what it wants to do. It then produces evidence for that option. Once ready, the whole thing is sent out for ‘consultation.’ These have to be carefully managed. After all if you could just send out a question, “What should we do about this issue?” The problem with that is you haven’t a clue what answers you might get. Even worse some of the answers could be really brilliant, and weak minded politicians might be tempted to run with those rather than going with the answer the bureaucracy has already picked.

So the more normal procedure is to supply three or four options. One will normally be ‘do nothing.’ As the whole premise behind the consultation is that doing nothing is not an option, they can put that in to prove they’re genuinely looking at all the options, secure in the knowledge nobody will suggest it.

The second option will be something that might be described, by an over-imaginative correspondent, as ridiculous and unworkable. It’s not normally that bad, but it’s obviously not the one you’re expected to go for.

The third, goldilocks, option is the one they’ve already decided they want.


Obviously once you know the game, there are things you can do. One is to demolish the goldilocks option, producing hard evidence to show it’s unworkable, illegal, or if all else fails, immoral.

The goldilocks option is the one you’re going to get, so it’s the one you have to work on to ensure that when it is implemented, it does at least do what you want it to.


But back to Sherry Phyllis Arnstein. I wonder what she’d have thought of this ‘consultation process?’ There again she might merely have pointed at her Ladder of citizen participation where consultation is merely smack bang in the middle of the ‘degrees of tokenism.’

Arnstein’s perspicacity impressed me. Then I mentioned the ladder to somebody else and she merely commented “I saw it in my A level sociology days.”

Yes, Arnstein published this ladder in 1969. At least two generations of bureaucrats have clawed their way out of the swamp of despond to take up their seats in the sunlit uplands which lead to that happy golden evening of index linked pensions. I’d love to know what proportion of them had come across Arnstein, and in spite of this they decided to stick with the term ‘consultation’. I suppose there’s no joy in power unless you can use it to rub somebody’s nose in it.

Not only that but the alternative terms Arnstein put on her ladder are hardly viable replacements for consultation. Placation sounds, if anything, even more patronising. Moving to the next one up, Partnership, is downright dangerous, hoi polloi offered partnership might expect their ideas and opinions to be taken seriously.

Heaven forefend! That would be the end of civilisation as we know it.




Oh yes, you strike me as the sort of person who would enjoy a good book. Purely by chance I had one to hand.

It just got a review!
These are four excellent short stories introducing the early days of Benor. Each tale pulses with humour as the well-drawn characters engage in various adventures. Each story features great dialogue, lots of good food, wine and ale, all taking place in a believable and well-drawn world where the streets pulse with life. The reader gets a powerful sense of being there in a real world with real people going about their real lives.

I look forward to reading the next book and wish I’d read this one far sooner.


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19 thoughts on “I may consult you later

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt August 10, 2018 at 2:22 pm Reply

    Forwarded to my sister in Mexico; Mexico has real problems.

    • jwebster2 August 10, 2018 at 2:23 pm Reply

      remind her that once a government has been advised by Jim Webster, all other problems fade into insignificance

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt August 10, 2018 at 2:29 pm

        I gave her your website address; she will see your words if she pops by. She’s a very good egg.

      • jwebster2 August 10, 2018 at 2:43 pm

        so far I have a mere 18 hits from Mexico since 2012 🙂

  2. David Manuel August 10, 2018 at 3:40 pm Reply

    Jim, your discussion of developing options reminded me of my own experience, fictionalized in A Feast of Famine (no link…it’s your blog so people reading here should buy your books!). Anyway, here’s a relevant excerpt:

    “Morpheus, hang on a minute.” Morgan glanced up at him, then resumed looking over his notes. Morpheus sat back down, waiting while the room emptied. Eventually only he and Morgan remained. Probably wants to chew me out for my sarcasm, Morpheus figured.

    “I want you to prepare the options paper.” Morgan slid his notes across the conference table. “Flesh these out so each one sounds like a serious course of action. You’ll have the three options. ‘A’ is we do nothing and blame the U.N. But put some lipstick on it and make it sound like an exercise in diplomacy. ‘B’ is we act like we’re taking the lead in a peacekeeping operation to get other countries to provide armed forces before they realize we’re just going to sit offshore and stay out of the line of fire. Don’t make it sound that cynical but make sure the president will get the point. ‘C’ is your invasion option.”

    “You can’t be serious. We can’t recommend invading Bulimia.”

    “We’re not.” Morgan looked tired. “That’s why it’s option ‘C.’ Options papers always have three options. ‘A’ and ‘C’ are throwaways. The whole point is to make them appear believable even though they are out of the question. So it looks like the president considered a range of actions before picking ‘B.’ Got it?”

    • jwebster2 August 10, 2018 at 6:32 pm Reply

      I can remedy the obvious oversight 🙂

  3. David Manuel August 10, 2018 at 7:05 pm Reply

    You are too kind, sir!

  4. The Story Reading Ape August 11, 2018 at 3:39 pm Reply
    • jwebster2 August 11, 2018 at 4:12 pm Reply

      Glad you liked it good sir, another graciously discarded banana peel to treasure 🙂

  5. robbiesinspiration August 11, 2018 at 3:52 pm Reply

    A very interesting discussion, Jim. I was pleased to see the review at the end. Congratulations.

    • jwebster2 August 11, 2018 at 4:12 pm Reply

      I always like to stick a mention of a book in 🙂
      I cherish my reviews and like to flaunt them

      • robbiesinspiration August 11, 2018 at 4:44 pm

        Good for you.

      • jwebster2 August 11, 2018 at 8:24 pm

        If somebody goes to the effort of writing a review, I ought to go to the effort of flaunting it 🙂

  6. OIKOS™-Redaktion August 11, 2018 at 4:36 pm Reply

    Thank you Jim, for the wonderful lession, and mentioning Mrs. Arnstein.I full consent, and this “the other heads of the hydra of government bureaucracy” is a funny statement too. 😉
    Congratulations to the review. Its going on and up. Have a good weekend. Michael

    • jwebster2 August 11, 2018 at 8:24 pm Reply

      Glad you found it interesting. I feel Mrs Arnstein deserves mentioning 🙂
      And yes, I’m pleased with the review

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