BBC Women’s charge of ‘no consultation’ highlights transparency need in institutional problem-solving

The most visible consultation story of the week highlights the fury of 170 ‘BBC Women’ at the failure to consult them in the recently-published On-Air Review (OAR). And there are important lessons for every public body and even organisations in the private sector.

It seems that BBC Women made ‘repeated requests’ to Lord Hall, the Director General, that they be consulted on the way in which the OAR would be undertaken. In evidence to the Digital, Culture Media & Sport Committee, this is what they said:-

“From the outset we asked to be consulted about its scope, terms of reference and methodology but the BBC went ahead without our input or involvement. Only on the 15th of January, six months into the process and barely two weeks before publication of an interim report form of the OAR, did the BBC agree – not to consult us but to have ‘listening sessions’ with all women involved. However, these sessions would only happen after making the results of the OAR public.

Once again, we see reluctance by bodies with a problem to listen to key stakeholders – who could be helpful in trying to understand the issues and in the search for answers. Wiser managements have long since learnt that getting those most affected on board is prerequisite to securing support for change or for controversial recommendations.

Who, in the BBC thought it was a good idea to turn down their request for consultation…?

In 2014, a row erupted between the Lord Chancellor’s Department and Criminal Solicitors in London over proposed changes in Legal Aid, and following a High Court case challenging the consultation, the Government was forced to reveal the underlying assumptions behind a modelling exercise done by KPMG. In the current BBC dispute, the critical information seems to be precise scope of the OAR. Who does it cover? How do you measure? And other detail.

In both cases, no-one will move to an acceptable solution without interested parties having confidence in the methodology. Similar issues bedevil important public Inquiries and have been factors in setting up the Child Abuse Inquiry, and also the Grenfell Tower fire Inquiry.

But the BBC Women evidence also confirms that this is not just about process, and the need to consult key stakeholders.

It is about Equality and about the Public Sector Equality duty and the legal requirement under S.149 of the 2010 Equality Act for organisations in the public sector (and some working in the public realm) to advance equal opportunity between the genders. The BBC can no more excuse a failure to hold proper dialogue with BBC Women than can any consultor omit to consult seldom-heard groups during a consultation, that might lead to a decision that affects such people.

The principles of consultation law do not just apply to public consultation for there are important internal, stakeholder exercises that also demand adherence to the Gunning Principles.

The Institute holds two unique courses that cover these difficult areas well. The Law of Consultation course is next being delivered in London on 14th March, and the following day, on 15th March, members and supporters can attend Equality Law for Public Engagement and Consultation.

About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 400 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 300 different Topic papers and over 40 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

Read more about Rhion

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