Anyone who wrestles frequently with government consultation exercises knows there is something faintly Soviet about them.
Sure, they look like powerful exercises in democracy, but all too often they descend into futile paper-shuffling that wastes 18 months before ministers reach a decision that looks all but identical to the original proposals put out for consultation.
Consultation documents are almost invariably hundreds of pages long, littered with repetition and legalese, and shaped by the most powerful vested interests. Responses are sought and then in most cases ignored unless they can secure the political backing necessary to divert the course of a policy proposal that has already won civil service approval.
It is a refreshing 14-pages long and has been developed with genuine in-put from a wide range of different stakeholders in the microgeneration sector.
It accurately identifies the non-financial challenges faced by the sector, such as a looming skills shortages, the tendency of government to move the goalposts on incentives, and the need to establish tight quality standards to discourage cowboy operators. It then offers a number of proposals for overcoming these barriers, but in an entirely non-proscriptive manner that suggests the government is genuinely looking for new ideas and is willing to listen to them.
Of course it could be argued that the reason this consulation has been allowed to operate as, well, a consultation, is that compared to many policies there is relatively little at stake. The microgeneration sector remains modest in size and there are no dominant players who can hijack the process and ensure their proposals are the ones adopted by government.
But this would be to miss the huge scale of the microgeneration opportunity and underplay the significance of this consultation. If the barriers identified by the industry can be overcome this is a sector that has the potential over the next decade to hugely increase the amount of renewable energy generated in the UK, create tens of thousands of skilled outsource-resistant jobs, and reduce long term energy bills for businesses and households alike.
The government has said it wants to receive new ideas on how to achieve these goals. Any business interested in providing or deploying microgeneration technology owes it to itself to make sure ministers aren't left disappointed by this rarest of exercises: a consultation that actually consults.
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