Consultation – Is it OK to start all over again?
There are a range of circumstances where a consultation takes place but then it becomes necessary to repeat the task.
- A County Council consults on a reconfiguration of services and is subsequently challenged in the High Court. It loses and must then consider whether to repeat the exercise.
- An NHS Trust which has spent years attempting to rationalise patient pathways, but had to start afresh after a Ministerial decision to abandon those specific proposals.
- A Planning authority which had previously consulted on designating areas of land for housing. Changes to planning policy meant the Council needs to look again at its decision.
All of these situations are different but they might encourage someone to decide to re-start the consultation process. There are many pitfalls to watch out for. Was it previously contentious? Did politics play a big role in why it failed? Repeating a flawed exercise for the purpose of ‘getting it done’ will damage your reputation and reduce community confidence. Repeating a consultation following a legal challenge is also problematic. These days, the judicial review route is almost the first shout from objectors and the media are quick to publicise. Consulting again following a day or two in Court and using the same methods as before may result in a widespread sensation from the public feeling let down; winning a case is not the same as winning an argument. How can we start again safely then?
Make a clean break.
When public bodies or others want to reconsider an issue and wish to draw a line following an unsuccessful process there are several things that can be done:
Change the decision-making process. If a particular Committee took the key decision last time round, possibly look to re-allocate the role.
Change the scope of the consultation. Especially following a legal challenge; it could be wider, seeking to influence matters that were ‘given assumptions’ the first time around. Or narrower, to focus a dialogue precisely enough around things that can genuinely be influenced.
Do pre-consultation differently. Involve a different group of stakeholders in the preparatory work. Or consider the impact of a more inclusive option-development/appraisal programme.
Use different dialogue methods. Clearly demonstrate this consultation is different to before. Are there any new methods which you want to try with stakeholders?
Have your consultation independently reviewed. Demonstrate the integrity of your programme. This could either be on the substantive analysis, or where suspicions remain that the process is unfair to endorse the conduct of the consultation itself.
In the current climate, circumstances are changing almost every day; newly announced pots of money for the NHS in conjunction with continuing cuts in local government that statutory services are struggling to continue running. It is justified and legitimate to say to people Since we sought your views X months ago, the situation has changed in the following ways…
Your narrative must be credible. There are many reasons why communities lose faith in continued attempts to involve and adopting best practice can change this attitude. If you are in a position that you need to re-consult, it can be a good opportunity to turn sceptics into believers. It won’t always work but it is worth aiming for.