How consultation overload has led to communications policy paralysis

In view of the many hidden agendas behind UK communications policy, I had expected Jim Prideaux  to comment (from a security and surveillance perspective) in reply to my recent post  speculating why the current DCMS/Treasury consultation is as it is – with an imploding list of those to whom the original notice was sent and almost zero press cover.

 Instead I received the following by pigeon post   from one of his former colleagues: “Disaffected of Dollis Hill” , who is concerned for his BT pension. I have changed nothing, not even the typos.


Here are some thoughts that some companies might like to make but cannot. They may shock. So long as people keep buying the things they are supplying why do they need to care?  The truth is that the current process is broken.  There is a possible solution, but no need to provide it because someone probably already did in a consultation response that was ignored.  There are ways to reenergise things – but the aim of this paper is NOT to set them out at this stage.

Some Key Issues

These are just some private thoughts – the main issues that come to mind.

Consultation Fatigue

One of the key drawbacks of the “proto-pseudo-wet-string-Internet” the UK has today is that the Government and Regulators are bombarding companies with consultations – or so it feels from the company “front line.”  The consequences of just one inadvertent comment can be catastrophic for individual and/or company, and companies form the East may be less willing to participate at all – or if they do to have a PR driven response which if of far less value than a considered response direct from the staff at the coal face.

Let’s look at just one recent example from Ofcom – a principal culprit.  The consultation which closed on 29th August comprised 185 pages – and that was just the main body document!  One thing is certain – companies do not have unlimited time or resources to devote to consultations, so the losers in this may well be the companies – but also those who deterred responses by simply making their consultation too damned long in the first place!  Now the Internet makes it even easier to do this, as only limited hard company runs of consultations are often produced…

 Plus ca Change – so why bother?

Another reason for scepticism on the company side can be the view that this is just an exercise, another “fishing trip,” and nothing will change – what value do regulations, or resolutions, arriving late, really provide anyway?  If in doubt “have a judicial review…” seems to be the prevailing mindset if there are real problems.  This is unfair – but we are dealing with perceptions, and these guide behaviours… We will comply with the law, so we are Ok anyway and need not bother too much.

The core regulatory problems in the sector are well known already, but has adequate meaningful progress been made on the scale necessary to keep the UK at the forefront of the Internet revolution?  Whilst this depends on who you might ask, the evidence is pretty conclusive.  We still don’t have a superfast broadband infrastructure whilst many of our Global economic competitors do. Worse still there is absolutely no prospect whatsoever of another GSM… 5G will be driven by Asia.  That may not be bad either, but it doesn’t matter either way because that’s just how it’s going to be. Roll with it or ignore it and die.

Below is a list of just a few issues:

1 The Infrastructure to enable people to properly exploit the Internet STILL simply isn’t there. Who has been held accountable for this national scandal? Wayleave charges- which should be scrapped if the policy was as stated to accelerate roll out of infrastructure, have actually been extended! Mistrust results.

2 We still have a focus on PSTN interconnect, and the future focus has all been about the fact that where BT does fibre up local loops, the focus has been on how to force them to share it – delaying roll out.  It’s just plan sad… BT is NOT to be blamed for its conduct – it has a duty to shareholders too, that’s its “electorate.”

3 Spectrum pricing has not delivered massive sums to HM Treasury – and never will again. What is has done is fragment the European market and prevented another GSM from emerging here – with massive detrimental consequences arguably greater than all the monies ever received (or promised) in auctions.  It has also arguably lead to the dislocation of the standards process.

Inaction Safer than Action?

Being seen as a radical “butters no parsnips” – and regulators and governments change anyway so what is the point of anything other than a shallow engagement some may feel? Better to avoid even the risk of consultation and confrontation until forced to act.  There is a fundamental asymmetry between companies in the market.  A few are huge, the majority supplying them cannot risk upsetting them nor easily afford the regulatory staff they would often like to employ (and who could really make a big difference to policy)

Two examples

1 Child protection

There was one company who actively sought not to get engaged throughout the whole process in UK

2 Dispute Resolution

One dispute over spectrum has now been running 12 years. The original complainant companies are mostly long dead now -as even is one of the judges who heard the case.  A speedier access to justice is needed

What Should Companies do?

Better in light of the above just to do a few forecast studies into the future and present these as the company position. They can always be disowned if they turn out to be wrong, and can conversely be used to demonstrate interest in the topic in general even if a particular consultation is not responded to. Safety first!

The Inconvenient truth is that Regulators and Government cannot promote Competition and Investment as fast or as well as the market and companies.  Those who must respond fastest to change are the companies.  If they do not they die.  The driver simply isn’t there the other way about. 

Government and regulators can make a difference at the margin – but not much more unless they act on a coordinated global basis.  They may have to soon to address trust issues on the Internet… If hackers succeed in securing even more revenues from Internet fraud then they already do (and this activity is allegedly already more profitable than the Global cocaine trade) – then the use of the Internet to do business will wither away – along with the jobs and taxes that could have been generated.


1 This comes under the company heading of “only important if it hits the bottom line” – it does matter but is often under-resourced and SME’s are not able to afford the energy and cost of a long term engagement programme

2 There are too many consultations and too little discipline exercised by those producing the biggest ones.  Impenetrability is not a benefit unless you want fewer responses

3 There is a shortage of those able to respond with quality answers

4 There is plenty of risk for companies in getting too involved – better to lie low when possible?

5 What’s the point – “they” never listen (or act effectively) anyway

Toughest of all… is that we can never really know if this is what is really in the minds of company respondents to consultations, we can only guess. Seeking to try to get to the bottom of the problem by using common-sense however would be infinitely preferable to yet another “forward look” consultation… Something has to change for if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we’ll get the results we’ve always got…  perhaps we should consult on what we need to do?  Alternatively we could risk using common-sense before we start consulting on consultations!  Without strong leadership, the right expert team at Government level and a top down desire to fix things with staff empowered to do just that we can bury all hope of change along with the UK’s aspirations to be a future player in the Internet economy.  Maybe we could start by deciding if we even need ex ante regulation at all anymore?  Now that would be an interesting consultation!

By the way – YES – companies do need to engage in the process and absolutely should – despite all this. One day we may get to the promised land!

I am not one of the many engaged in debate over communications policy who is worried about their BT pension. I am, however, delighted that my BT shares have finally recovered to the price I paid at privatisation (£1.30 = £3.83), having crashed from £10.60 after the consequences of local loop unbundling became apparent. Also perpetual consultation leading to policy paralysis is not confined to Ofcom and communications.  I have just written (in a draft submission to the House of Lords Digital Skills Enquiry (deadline 5th September) about how similar behaviour underlies the reason why we have failed to address the underlying causes of our cyclical “digital” (we used to say data processing, computing or IT) skills crises. An ever smaller, and less representative, audience responds to detailed and duplicated consultations that fail to address the points of leverage.

Hence the reason I am seeking to help open up this consultation to a wider audience and am delighted that the Digital Policy Alliance has agreed to provide an umbrella for a short-notice, all-party round table on the issues