November 13, 2003
Proposals are frequently made on the desirability of central governments, local governments and other bodies consulting widely before making decisions. Let us look at this issue a little more closely.
There are too extreme possibilities on the question of decision making. The first is that one person decides without consulting anyone else. That does not happen even in the most extreme dictatorship. The dictator's aides provide some level of information and feedback to enable him to decide, and by that means, they enter the decision making process as the kind and quality of information they provide will obviously influence the decision made. The other extreme possibility is that everyone is consulted. That is not practical in other than the smallest unit of government, perhaps a council in a very small village. In practice, these limiting cases are not the issue. From the standpoint of efficient and effective government the question is how many interest groups is it desirable for a decision maker to consult.
This, of course, raises all kinds of difficult considerations, some of which are conflicting. For example, in favour of wide consultation is the desire to involve as many persons as possible in the decision, against it is the obvious fact that this will slow down the decision making process considerably. In favour of wide consultation is that you get a lot of different viewpoints, against it is that though in principle that may seem good, in practice it will make it more complicated and harder to decide. Different groups have different priorities, give different weights to apparent benefits and disadvantages. It is very difficult if not impossible to reconcile all of these conflicting views.
Then take the issue of levels of information available. Some groups will be much better informed than others. Some will have little or no idea of the bigger picture, the different variables. How does the decision maker bring them up to speed, so to speak? Does he or she have to send them extensive briefings in advance of consultation? But what is really wanted is their views, wouldn't a detailed advance briefing make nonsense of the process by conditioning them in a certain way? What is the object of consultation, to get more viewpoints, to acquire useful knowledge?
There is in principle an optimism level of consultation, though this is purely theoretical, never achieved in practice. In practice, one has to learn from experience. Too much consultation can lead to delay, indecision and impotence. Too little can lead to bad mistakes being made. Wider consultation is not a good thing in itself, in the abstract so to speak. It is all a question of what useful information and inputs you may hope to achieve by consultation and the price you pay in terms of time lost. Anyone who has run a company of any size will have a good idea of the trade offs involved. If you try to consult too many groups you may end up suffering from information overload and consultation may become a substitute for decision making.
At the end of the day, organisations of all kinds, including governments, have to make decisions. The worst outcome of all is to do nothing. If they continually get it wrong, it's not working well. If decisions often lead to good results something is working. There is no simple formula, and the widest consultation is not necessarily in itself a good thing. Some decisions are very complex, they can't possibly be delegated or shared. It would take far too long to explain all the relevant facts to others in order to get their opinion. The buck stops somewhere, both with decision making and the responsibility for the decisions made.