Are you getting the right people in the room?
In a number of organisations, the days of turning up to a meeting to be greeted with a consultation document complete with options, a questionnaire and timetable (ambitious as it might be), are gone. The public expect a level of involvement early on and this can be a problem for some public bodies.
When involvement is laid out in guidance or legislation consultors are obliged to do so early – and if they don’t, they may find themselves in Court. Take the NHS for example, the words “in the development and consideration of proposals” spell out the steps that must be taken, and the legal challenge against NHS Corby last year is one to examine to make sure you get it right. In other sectors such as planning, the picture is less clear.
We still have scenarios where experts convene and narrow down the possible options before talking to anyone else. Since the 2011/2012 Royal Brompton case, the Courts have been more willing to look at the way in which the options were selected. Re-cap on our article from last week about the rising fear about options appraisal. The 2014 Haringey case highlighted the risks of a single-option consultation. Five years on from that case and critics are still quick to question the options development/appraisal methods and how the favoured choice became ‘preferred’.
How can consultors safely get through this minefield?
Even if you are not statutorily obliged to involve stakeholders at an early stage, those who will be affected by potential changes will have insight and contributions that are important to the consultative process. In transport, we need the involvement of passengers; in housing let’s engage with tenants or householders; in education, it’s parents – and teachers. Use representatives from groups and change these frequently. Avoid attracting ‘the usual suspects’. Who gets to be in in that room is essential in establishing the credibility of your options.
Best practice in pre-consultation has evolved rapidly in recent years and many organisations are doing it well. There is a mass of evidence that improving the quality and quantity of pre-consultation involvement has a bearing on subsequent dialogue, but there is a fine line to be drawn between prematurely ruling out certain solutions at the outset and allowing freedom to explore with few constraints; it needs a degree of skill & political nous to make the right call.
Does your organisation provide the opportunity to influence at the options phase? Let us know…