A Blueprint for Consultation Skills Training & Development for Local Authorities & Public Bodies
Context – 1
Rationale for training investment – 2
Ten Steps: – 5
1 – Review current consultation – 5
2 – Creation of Consultation network – 5
3 – Training Needs Analysis – 6
4 – Programme – and a conference – 7
5 – Chief Officers’ Training – 8
6 – Members’ Training – 9
7 – Consultation Specialists Training – 9
8 – Consultation skills for front-line staff – 10
9 – Stakeholder training – 11
10 – Programme Evaluation – 12
Conclusion – 12
Many public bodies are facing a period of rapid change, but nowhere is this more evident than in Local Government. Here it is predicted that their current role of comprehensive service delivery will be replaced by a community leadership remit. Councils will spend more time and devote more resources to discovering what stakeholders think and require. This means that consultation skills become a core competence for public bodies.
Until recently, there was only a limited understanding of the range of skills required to conduct public engagement and consultation properly, and also few opportunities to source specialist training.
The Institute has been at the forefront of developments in this area, and has trained almost 1,000 Local Government officers and civil servants through a range of innovative courses. But it recognises that running training courses for consultation professionals is only part of a much wider agenda of skills building and deployment which most public agencies now need to consider
This Briefing paper is meant to act as a thought-starter for those who need to look at their inventory of consultation-related skills and know-how. It may act as a complete blueprint, or just as a means of filling gaps in a Council’s existing understanding or an action plan that is already being implemented.
The Blueprint makes no assumption about existing skill levels. Neither does it assume a given organisational model. It notes that some Authorities have a centralised team of specialists who focus on community involvement and consultation activities. But it also recognises that others persevere with a de- centralised model, with skills deployed all over a wide organisation. Regardless of which model applies, this Blueprint offers ideas and suggestions that are relevant.
Although the Blueprint’s Ten Steps have been designed as a sequential continuum, they do not have to be treated as such. Not all the Steps will be appropriate for all Authorities; only some are dependent upon a previous Step having been carried out. Indeed, Councils may well find that they already have adequate provision for some steps and may see value only in using this Blueprint to help develop those they do not yet have.
Comments on this paper will be welcome; please address them to Rhion Jones, Programme Director of The Consultation Institute, at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rationale for Training investment
This is not an exclusive list, but here are ten reasons why the investment is necessary; Institute members and others may find this list useful in preparing a Business Case for increased training in this area.
Reasons for Consultation-related training
- Building & delivering sustainable public services means talking to people and understanding their requirements; the new CPA framework emphasises that all service providers need to do this!
- Too many of those who undertake consultation or public involvement have learnt on the job and therefore standards are very variable
- Some stakeholders are over-consulted and there is evidence of consultation fatigue. The best trained consultors will engage their attention
- The Gershon agenda is about efficiency and effectiveness. Better training means better use of resources and less “re-inventing the wheel”
- The nation’s system of Town Planning is being overhauled with Statements of Community Involvement (CIS in Wales); new skills are needed here.
- Community leadership means working with other public agencies, and learning how to consult once instead of duplicated exercises
- Best practice consultation motivates citizens and stakeholders; worst practice alienates them from democratic processes
- The better the consultation, the better public policy decisions can be!
- New techniques such as e-consultation require specialist help and guidance
- Failures in feedback mean that many consultees are unhappy with the process; best practice means learning to observe standards
The Ten Steps
Step 1 Review of current consultations
(including the Consultation Strategy)
The starting point for any serious review of skills is to ask the question Why are they needed? It is not as easy as it sounds, and for many Authorities, the answer lies in the fact that the Council already undertakes a large amount of
consultation – albeit by staff who have learnt by doing.
Assessing the current workload is therefore an obvious initial step, but it must always be remembered that looking at the past, or indeed the present is not an infallible way to predict the future!
The Institute recommends a comprehensive assessment of all formal consultations undertaken in the past twelve months. In particular, the Review should look at who did the work. Was it done entirely in-house? Or were parts of it outsourced? If so, at what cost? And to what performance standard?
In some cases, a Consultation Strategy, or maybe a wider Community Involvement Strategy may already exist. If so, this should help identify the skills that are needed, and the number of people who need them. If the Strategy has no Section detailing resources required, consider re-visiting the Strategy. It should be the base document against which to plan skills training in this area.
Step 2 Creation of a Consultation network
Most Councils have a large number of staff who have, over time, become familiar with consultation activities – some with formal consultation, and many more with less formal varieties. Each one interfaces with part of the stakeholder base.
To do their jobs properly, and to avoid transmitting inconsistent messages to important parts of the community, such staff should be aware of each other’s activities, and should attempt to be as joined-up as possible in their approach to consultation.
But in addition to this co-ordination agenda, there is another benefit to a Network. It encourages the dissemination of best practice. If there are 30-40 dialogue methods, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to be an expert on all of them. So part of the role of the network is to enable staff to become familiar with who can help with what.
Networks can take many forms. Some are purely an electronic distribution list; others have developed into professional self-help groups exchanging information using sophisticated ICT; others meet on a regular basis to discuss important topics. But what better forum can exist to consider and evaluate training needs?
As consultation and public involvement spreads outwards into a wider range of public bodies, and as Local Strategic Partnerships begin to assume responsibility for the overall stakeholder interface, cross-agency networks will become even more necessary. Several geographic networks already exist and have arisen spontaneously. Their new task is to use these networks to determine training priorities and address the skills deficit.
Step 3 The Training Needs Analysis
There is no immutable law that says that training requirements can only be identified in a comprehensive systematic way. For years, and in most areas of skills development, there has usually been a healthy element of pragmatic, ad hoc response to particular needs.
But assessing training needs in a more systematic way is far more efficient. It also helps prioritise, and is more likely to address the important as well as the urgent!
The range of skills and the areas of knowledge required for public engagement, involvement and consultation is very wide. It extends from project management skills, market research techniques and process know- how through to esoteric disciplines such as group dynamics and social psychology!
Whether a TNA is undertaken by a Consultation co-ordinator, or by a HR department as part of a much wider skills audit matters little. What is important is that the exercise be done, so that Councils and others can form a view of what investments and actions are needed.
The Institute’s TNA methodology
The Institute has a comprehensive Skills Inventory initially developed for and used in the Consultation Strategies & Skills course, where it is distributed to course participants as a self-assessment tool. The technique recommended is to score the particular skill against two separate factors – relevance to one’s job, and proficiency. The assumption is made that, all things being equal, the greater the relevance to one’s job, then the greater the proficiency that’s required.
By comparing the two numbers (the Institute uses a 10 point scale so as to optimise the usable granularity) it is possible to identify the gaps between Relevance and Proficiency. A substantial gap means a significant training need; a negative gap or small gap suggests that little or no further training is required.
Such techniques enable Managers to compare the size of the gaps and to identify the priority for each skill area.
For more information, contact Elizabeth Gammell, Head if Research at the Institute: Elizabeth@consultationinstitute.org
Step 4 A Programme – and a Conference to launch it!
The next step is to aggregate the individual training needs and to group together those common elements so as to design a cost-effective programme.
Many Authorities will have similar priorities, and may include some or all of the following:-
- Understanding the terminology of public engagement, consultation and other forms of community involvement
- Stakeholder management basics and the need for consistent information- gathering; stakeholder profiling & mapping techniques
- Public involvement processes eg when to use informal consultation skills and when to mount a formal consultation exercise
- Designing a consultation programme as well as individual exercises
- Detailed knowledge on the most popular dialogue methods
- New technology options for community involvement and consultation
- Data analysis, interpretation and feedback
- Report preparation & presentation of output to decision-makers
The impact of legislation – particularly the Freedom of Information Act, and the Data Protection Act Consultation and Diversity; engaging the hard-to-reach/seldom-heard s
But a programme containing such important elements may need something extra – a visible commitment from Chief Officers and Senior Managers. This is because people working on community involvement and consultation can be easily discouraged by the all-too-familiar pattern of working hard to engage citizens and businesses only to find that the output from such exercises is disregarded by decision-makers.
So a commitment to training should be accompanied by a demonstrable attempt to motivate and inspire.
An ideal way to do this is to convene an in-house Conference. The Institute has assisted in such events, but the prime requirement is for the Chief Executive or the Leader of the Council to lead by example and commit everyone to a more consultative culture. This is 100% in line with the latest CPA framework, and should therefore go with the grain of current thinking.
A Launch Conference can be used more ambitiously. Not only can it bring together in one room the many people likely to be involved in consultations of one sort or another (One County Council Institute member has calculated it has over 120 staff engaged for a significant amount of their time on consultation!) but it can also be the occasion to communicate key messages. These might include the need for improved co-ordination between departments – or maybe between agencies. Or it might seek to place developments in community involvement in the context of the Gershon Agenda.
It might even be an occasion to which Councils can invite key stakeholder organisations – an exercise in transparency to convince consultees that the Council in investing in the consultation process.
Step 5 Chief Officers’ Training
Arguably the most important group of all to train are a Council’s Chief Officers. This is not just because of their seniority and their role in the decision-making
process. It is also because almost every function in a modern Authority carries responsibilities for public involvement – and many are themselves responsible for organising consultation exercises.
The Institute recognises three separate scenarios, depending upon a Council’s commitment and interest in consultation processes
Option One: The Executive Briefing
This recognises the reality that in a Council with very many serious problems and without a clear priority for community involvement, time may only be found for a two-hour Executive Briefing. Much can be accomplished even in such a short Session, and the Institute feels able to provide an appropriately selected range of messages that will help Officers channel the activities of their consultation staff to optimise the use of scarce resources.
Option Two: The Joint Course
Where there is a genuine commitment and some, if not all Chief Officers want to spend time understanding the potential for consultation and allied activities, one option is to attend a day-long Course alongside Elected Members (See Step 6) or Consultation Specialists (See Step 7). Although the emphasis will differ according to which course the Chief Officers attend, the benefit of leaning alongside the others makes this a very attractive way forward
Option Three: The Two-day Masterclass
In the current climate, and in the context of the CPA direction of travel, it is increasingly likely that leading-edge Councils will appreciate that becoming excellent at community involvement and consultation is a good route to true Community Leadership. But as few Chief Officers have received formal training in the subject, there is a need to expose them to the principles, though probably not through the conventional route.
The Institute suggests, instead, a two-day residential master-class in an executive environment, working through advanced concepts, and tackling the challenging issues of managing citizen expectations and the sometimes-difficult follow-up at the policy-making stage. (See Panel below on the use of Worked Examples in Institute training)
Step 6 Members’ Training programme
A comprehensive Training programme should make provision for helping Elected Members become comfortable with the whole gamut of consultation and related concepts.
It is understandable that there are tensions between representative democracy and consultative democracy, and it is important for Chief Officers and their staffs to reassure Elected Members that obtaining evidence of stakeholder opinions is a means to support Councillors’ decision-making, not a route to a circumvent them.
The best way to do this is either to invite Elected Members to sit in on Officer training sessions, or to devise a programme of Briefings that helps them understand the principles, techniques and usability of consultation. For Elected Members, it is often a matter of style as much as of substance. In general they respond well to the evidence-based policy-making approach, and are also keen to learn of good practice as demonstrated through Case Studies from other Authorities. An evening session requires a more relaxed atmosphere, and can sometimes be a better environment for a constructive exchange of views, probably led by an independent third party specialist.
Step 7 Consultation specialists training
Those for whom consultation and allied forms of community involvement are a full-time role will probably be familiar with most of the dialogue methods in current use. Where they have gaps in their knowledge – or upon first appointment, there are a range of external courses available from a variety of sources offering everything from questionnaire design to focus groups.
But the real gaps may not lie in the skills for eliciting consultee opinions; many Councils have excellent toolkits even if training on those toolkits appears less consistently provided. The Institute believes that the most challenging aspects lie in the end-to-end process of consultation, and in the intricacies of planning a complex exercise so as to provide the most valuable input into decision-making later on.
Techniques such as Stakeholder Identification & Mapping, Pre-consultation processes, Issue Analysis, Consultation Narrative preparation and so forth are particularly relevant here. Staff need an environment where they can try out some of these without the consequences of a real-life situation with attendant risks and the danger of making mistakes.
With this in mind, the Institute has incorporated Group Exercises into two of its successful one-day courses for staff in this category. In the last two years 300 have attended Making Consultation Meaningful; and approx 200 have attended Consultation Strategies & Skills.
Its latest Course Consultation – Before & After breaks new ground in guiding consultation specialists through an end-to-end Worked Example (See Panel) and is probably a world first!
Another area where these individuals may need significant training in the coming months is on e-consultation techniques. It is important for Councils not to allow expertise on these matters to reside solely within the ICT department, and even those
Welcome to “Bloombridge” !!
This material can also be used for in-house courses without technical knowledge will easily absorb the most critical skills.
Virtually every Authority needs to be at least minimally familiar with the Seven Applications of e-consultation and where they have chosen to deploy increasingly popular e-discussion forums there may be a need to train Moderators and Dialogue Co-ordinators.
The Institute’s new Course – Consultation Before & After, helps participants identify and consider difficult aspects of public and stakeholder consultation through an unique but highly realistic Case Study.
Developed as an end-to-end Worked Example, the Bloombridge scenario is of a socially diverse town coming to terms with a big housing development on its outskirts. All the familiar problems are there from traffic to environmental conservationists, and through a series of eight exercises, course participants learn about project scoping, pre-consultation, analysis planning and pivotally
– What to do with the results?
Step 8 Consultation skills for front-line staff
Not everyone is a consultation specialist. But a truly amazing proportion of Local Authority staff perform tasks for which consultation skills are sometimes needed.
- Teachers meet parents organisations and many other stakeholder groups
- Social Workers regularly meet Care organisations, medical charities or other statutory agencies
- Parks & Leisure Managers consult with Regular Users, Sporting Clubs or Horticultural societies
- Development Control staff in Planning departments have to consult Residents Associations,Business interests and others
- Highway Engineers consult road users, residents and a range of local interest groups on a daily basis
- Trading Standards officers discuss issues with business groups and consumer bodies
- Economic development units build relationships with business stakeholders and their representative bodies
- Diversity & Equality Officers meet stakeholder groups regularly to discuss sensitive matters
and influence Council policies etc etc and the list goes on and on because all front-line service providers observe Best Value principles and consult their Users.
Few of these people have ever received high-quality training in the skills of informal consultation, yet their ears-to-the-ground role provides Councils with one of the best possible forms of community feedback. To cultivate this intelligence-gathering and to help staff relate their work to a Council’s programme of formal consultations, Authorities should consider devising or procuring training materials and a delivery mode that can be rolled out in high volume and may be incorporated into other professional development training.
Following innovative work done with the Environmental Services department of Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council, the Institute has developed a one-day Course to meet this need. Entitled Consultation Skills for the Public Sector, this is designed for Service Managers and Service Providers who come into regular contact with citizens or Stakeholder groups, and is available as a public course, or for in-house delivery; a train-the-trainer option is under preparation.
Step 9 Stakeholder training
In devising a comprehensive Training programme for community involvement and consultation, it must always be remembered that the goal is to achieve a smooth-running process able to handle a wide variety of issues of public significance and in ways that encourages all groups in the community to have their say.
So training consultors without also helping consultees to participate is a mistake. Many of the hundreds of representative stakeholder groups in the average
Council are experienced in responding to community involvement initiatives. But even they struggle to cope with the sheer volume of current activity. Hence consultation fatigue! But there are far more groups (and not just those that are mistakenly called hard-to-reach) that simply need help through one or more types of capacity-building.
Whilst a formal training course would be hardly appropriate for some stakeholders, there is no doubt that others would benefit from such an innovation. In Northern Ireland and in Scotland, the Institute has experimented by working alongside the local Councils for Voluntary Action to mount specialised courses called Responding to Consultations
Reactions were good enough to justify offering such courses now in England & Wales, and the Institute’s advice is for Councils to work with their local CVO’s to establish the interest in such training. Again, a train-the-trainer option is under consideration.
Another way forward for Councils is to mount special Stakeholder Seminars to help explain the intricacies of community involvement mechanisms to potential consultees and in particular to help set realistic expectations. A once-a-year event to announce and discuss the forthcoming consultation calendar is also a very useful way to engage with these important partners.
Step 10 Programme Evaluation
Finally, as with any other Action Programme, a Training programme should also be evaluated, not just at its conclusion, but at a suitable mid-point when implementation experience can be properly considered and lessons learnt in time to refine the deliverables for the second half of the programme.
One way to undertake the evaluation is to re-visit the original TNA, and re-assess those whose needs were calibrated to gauge the movement in proficiency score (See panel in Step 2).
If a training programme has been well designed it will always have a normative behavioural effect in stimulating the best staff to reach out for self-help tools and materials so that formal courses are supplemented informally by user-paced self- selected training and even group-learning.
Ultimately a public body, just as a commercial firm needs a healthy return on investment, and if significant resources are to be spent on high-quality training and development of staff for consultation and community involvement, it is important to have set measurable goals that can be reviewed at the end of the programme.
Whilst this can clearly be done in-house, there are times when the use of an external body will prove a more credible source for such an evaluation.
A wide variety of audiences require slightly different training and this has to take into account the different styles and levels of delivery that are required. There is also a considerable range of local cultures as well as a sensitivity to the local political situation to take into account.
But despite all this, the Ten Steps constitute a reasonably uniform framework within which Local Authorities can work. It can serve as a checklist against which to judge whether a Council has effectively covered all that it should in the area of training for these important activities.
This Briefing Paper has at several points mentioned work undertaken by The Consultation Institute. This is not as a means of promoting particular courses as such but to illustrate the kind of capability that is now available; much of this has been inspired and requested by Institute members. Whilst the Institute is happy to assist Councils with their Analysis, Programme preparation and delivery, the aim of this paper is primarily to set out a blueprint for the range and nature of training that is required.
The challenge is therefore for Councils – and for other public bodies – to find a way to secure the funding and the senior management commitment that will help such training programmes become a reality.
This is the 7th Briefing Paper; a full list of subjects covered is available for Institute members and is a valuable resource covering so many aspects of consultation and engagement