Democracy at work?
One of the benefits of 'open government' is that we now have very extensive access to the processes and machinations of our elected representatives and bureaucrats. We can see the workings of parliament on television, we can browse the web for arcane reports, committee minutes and even upcoming agenda items. Given our particular interest at SIRC in food issues and scares we naturally keep an eye on the content of the Food Standards Agency's web site, primarily to see how its determination to provide greater transparency and democratic consultation is coming along. It was in this routine context that a seemingly dull publication labelled FSA 01/01/03 came our way.
This document contains Agenda Item 5 for the meeting of the FSA board on 8 February 2001 which relates back to a consultation process initiated towards the end of last year on a very crucial aspect of the agency's function – how the policy making process of the FSA can best be opened up to a wider range of consumer interests so as to ensure that its decisions are based on a full understanding of their views. This is important stuff and goes to the heart of the FSA's mission.
The consultation process Involving Consumers in Policy Making received responses from food industry groups and an equal number of consumer groups and NGOs, including Consumers' Association, Friends of the Earth and Sustain. One of the specific areas addressed in the consultation was the perceived need, or otherwise, for a FSA consumer consultative committee and, if there was such a need, consideration of its remit and constitution.
On these issues both the industry and consumer groups expressed a rare consensus. Yes, there should be such a committee, but only if it is to be truly representative. This essential quality, most agreed, should be ensured by a committee selection process involving open competition and Nolan rules – in other words, truly transparent and democratic procedures.
Such a consensus, however, seems to have been overlooked by Grant Meekings, head of the FSA's Food Labelling and Standards Division, and the man responsible for drawing up a summary of the consultative process and making recommendations to the board. Rather than recommending a Consumer Committee established on lines suggested by those consulted, Meekings makes a quite different proposal – nominations would be invited from existing consumer groups but the FSA itself would decide the composition of the committee: "The Agency would appoint members from these nominations to construct a balanced committee with links to the views of outside organisations …"
This is clearly not what those consulted had in mind because it removes the vital democratic component and enables the FSA to 'hand pick' the people it will listen to and 'fully understand' as part of its decision-making process. It is also depressing to see how easily a single bureaucrat within the FSA can apparently 'adjust' the views expressed in consultation processes before they reach the Board and are acted upon. If the FSA wishes to maintain its reputation as an open and listening agency, it will have to correct these shortcomings.
February 7th 2001