Council wrestles between engagement v consultation
“Is it fair to say that engagement is an informal process and consultation formal?” This was one of the questions we received this week during our Members-only webinar on An Introduction to Community Engagement. Actually, the real difference is not in the degree of formality (though consultation is often, in reality, more formal) but in your commitment to take proper account of the output of a dialogue. When you engage, you are developing and maintaining a relationship and learning a lot about what people think and why. It can be really useful, but not binding in any way; in the story from Wiltshire below, this is clearly what they often want to accomplish. Consultation involves a commitment to ‘conscientiously consider’ what people say. It is like a social contract with the community and has legally-enforceable rules, such as the Gunning Principles. Ensuring communities are aware of when you are engaging with them and when you are consulting with them, is essential to maintaining your credibility and helps to minimise scepticism.
Are you sure your organisation clearly distinguishes between engagement and consultation? We will be discussing community engagement more at tCI Connect 2019 on 27th November.
Complaints that Wiltshire Council did not listen to fierce public opinion against the closure of Eveleigh Recycling Centre has led councillors to look into the way the council consult with the public on key decisions.
During the consultation on whether to shut the recycling centre in Pewsey, 1,300 residents got in touch, with 94 per cent calling for it to remain open. However, the decision was made to close the centre, leading to complaints from the public including the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), that decisions were made regardless of public opinion.
However, it turns out only 14 per cent of public consultations for opinions about issues such as parking or education are legally binding. The other 86 per cent of ‘consultations’ were opinion polls, often leaving the public feeling views were not listened to because there is no legal duty.
Cllr John Walsh said: “Filling out consultations, I have been left with this feeling Wiltshire Council was trying to fix it so the public were not properly involved.”
Cllr Pip Ridout added: “We need to make sure the public understand that a consultation has a legally binding meaning. We need to use the term engagement with the public when we are asking for their opinion about something and not consulting.”
If a legal public consultation is held, decision-makers have to prove they have considered it fully. Plans were put in place to improve the way the council respond to locals expressing their opinion. The committee recommended that in the future consultations and opinion polls were explained to Wiltshire people more clearly. The recommendation asked, “For all decision-making papers to clearly set out how respondents’ views have actively influenced the final decision made.”
Cabinet member Allison Bucknell thanked the investigation and said the council would take all the recommendations on board. “Our communities team are trying to work out better ways of engaging with people and we will be using these teams when we do larger consultations and informing members earlier in the process.”
Article originally appeared on This is Wiltshire
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