Consultation systems and their key principles

Consultations should be understood as systems of democratic engagement. Four principles should underpin them: they should be inclusive, well-informed, equitable and accountable

In these pages, we set out the main findings from the stakeholder dialogues and the workshop. Below we briefly discuss the importance of understanding consultation as a system and summarise the overall principles for consultation that emerged from the project. From here, you can also navigate to the options for stakeholder-centric, deliberative change that our stakeholders identified, to an explanation of how deliberation is reflected in their ideas, and to our overarching recommendations for designing consultations. 

Consultation as a system

Put simply, policy consultation is a process where policymakers seek evidence and views from groups affected by a policy and/or from other contributors with relevant knowledge. Our participants define it as a complex, ongoing process, rather than a one-off event, involving various methods of engagement (e.g. multi-stakeholder workshops, roundtables, and one-to-one discussions as well as written documents). The Cabinet Office (2018) guidance on consultation reflects this view: ‘Consultation is not just about formal documents and responses. It is an on-going process’.

Our stakeholders talked about the consultation process as a system (Mansbridge et al. 2012), made up of many different methods, all of which interact, affect each other, and contribute to the overall outcome. Adopting a systemic approach to consultation directs attention to whether the overall system is working effectively, rather than whether single elements are effective or not. Two critical questions arise: First, does the consultation have the right range and mix of methods to achieve democratic and epistemic outcomes? Second, how can the connections between the methods be improved to achieve better outcomes?

Answering these questions requires benchmarks for assessing consultation practices. Our participants' discussions revealed four principles that should be used when designing consultations and can act as benchmarks. Consultation processes should be inclusive, well-informed, equitable and accountable


Inclusivity has two components: access and participatory parity. First, consultations should be accessible to anyone with relevant knowledge about a policy area and/or potentially affected by a policy. Second, consultation participants need the resources to participate and to be respected as a valued contributor. The political theorist, Nancy Fraser (Fraser and Honneth, 2003: 36), uses the term ‘participatory parity’ to refer to the resources and respect required to participate meaningfully.


Well-informed consultations have two components. First, they should be based on wide-ranging and rigorous evidence about the policy area. Second, they should be based on mutual understanding with opportunities for stakeholders to reflect on each others' views as well as their own position, in order to develop thoughtful contributions. 


Equitable consultations ensure influence and balance. Consultations should offer stakeholders a genuine opportunity to influence policy outcomes; all contributions to the consultation should be treated as equally important, with no participants favoured over others; and there should be a willingness to negotiate and reach compromises where agreement is not possible.


Two components contribute to being accountable. There should be transparency about key aspects of the consultation process to allow scrutiny by stakeholders. Participants should also have access to justifications from other stakeholders to explain the positions they adopt, and from decision-makers, who should justify the process and outcomes of the consultation by showing how contributions were considered and balanced, decisions made and final outcomes arrived at.


The principles are what Mansbridge calls ‘regulative ideals’ (Mansbridge et al., 2010): aspirations to aim towards and benchmarks that can be used to evaluate consultations. They also reflect different aspects of deliberation, and will therefore reinforce the deliberative quality of consultations.

The principles are all important, but the relationships between them can be complex. In some cases, they may overlap and be mutually reinforcing – realizing one principle helps to realize another. In other cases, they may be in tension with each other. For example, participatory parity, helps to achieve balance because it ensures a wide range of views is included in a consultation. On the other hand, creating more transparency may reduce stakeholders' willingness to be honest about their negotiating position, and thereby reduce the potential for compromise. 

Some consultation methods or practices will contribute to achieving some principles better than others. For example, an email campaign coordinated by an advocacy group may be inclusive, but it may not promote mutual understanding or be based on robust evidence.

Ideally, the principles would be balanced so one principle is not realized at the expense of another, and a consultation would use the combination of methods that ensures the overall system reflects each principle as closely as possible.


Cabinet Office. (2018). Consultation Principles 2018. London Cabinet Office. Retrieved from:

Fraser, N., & Honneth, A. (2003). Redistribution or recognition? A political-philosophical exchange. London: Verso.

Mansbridge, J., Bohman, J., Chambers, S., Christiano, T., Fung, A., Parkinson, J., . . . Warren, M. (2012). A systemic approach to deliberative democracy. In J. Parkinson & J. Mansbridge (Eds.), Deliberative systems: deliberative democracy at the large scale (pp. 1-26). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mansbridge, J., Bohman, J., Chambers, S., Estlund, D., Follesdal, A., Fung, A., . . . Martí, J.-L. (2010). The place of self-interest and the role of power in deliberative democracy. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 18(1), 64-100.