Consultations and political interventions

Since writing The Politics of Consultation, Elizabeth Gammell and I have been struck by readers’ reactions to the many stories we recount, and the growing realisation that so many consultations are affected by political interventions – great and small.

The question that mostly arises is to what extent are these factors foreseeable? Is it possible to anticipate the political interventions that can impact the process? And if they can be anticipated, is there much that consultors – or indeed consultees can do about it.

Can we foresee political issues?

In general, yes we can. People and organisations usually act logically to pursue or defend their interests. A half-decent stakeholder mapping exercise should identify those who have a significant ‘interest’ in the outcome of a consultation. It will also tell us how powerful is their ‘influence’. Dangers lurk where there has not been a sufficiently adequate analysis, or where it has failed to take account of future developments that might change that mapping in the light of events. It is not unknown for groups to zoom dramatically from left to right on the conventional interest/influence matrix, when new revelations about proposals alert them to serious impacts upon their activities – of which they were previously unaware.

Elected politicians do not have an infallible nose for trouble. They are often caught unaware by the vehemence of their constituents’ opposition to proposals they thought were uncontroversial. Anticipating the politics therefore is a two-stage analysis. First identify those whose interests lead them to a predictable involvement in the debate. Then try to imagine the profile of interested stakeholders if certain events happen – we can call this contingency-mapping!

While we might correctly anticipate who might be likely to participate – or intervene, it is less easy to forecast how and when. But it can be done. Public affairs specialists monitor a politicians’ track records and preferred modes of intervention. Are they fond of the Press Release and chase headlines or TV interviews? Or are they more prone to the quiet word with the Minister or civil servants? Will they actively participate in the consultation? Or will they just denounce it, and attempt to discredit the exercise?  Will they come out, guns blazing right at the beginning? Or will they keep their powder dry? Will they wait and see which way the local wind is blowing, and declare their views towards the end of the exercise?

Experienced practitioners are sound, if not infallible judges of these situations, and at the Institute we have now identified well-trodden patterns of behaviour which we call Political Intervention Points or PIPs At a time when lots of technically-okay public consultations are unexpectedly derailed by unforeseen political developments, we think there is everything to be gained by sitting down and trying to anticipate those PIPs.

What can be done about the politics?

The way a consultation is structured should take account of the anticipated politics. Much revolves around the scope of the exercise, and being politically-aware of sensitivities about what decisions have and have not yet been taken. Some political interventions will amount to “Do ask about this … but that is non-negotiable …” Determining the main focus of a consultation is central to its political acceptance or vulnerability. A similar critical factor is its governance. Politicians, political parties and influential stakeholders will always pay special attention to who exactly is in charge – and who expects to take the decision. Any flaws in the setting up of a public consultation will be exposed if it becomes subject to political scrutiny. Failure to handle these aspects properly increases the risks of serious problems.

Certain kinds of political interventions will take the form of low-level criticisms of methodology. On the scale of things, poorly managed public meetings, system outages of an online survey, or even badly-worded questions may appear relatively unimportant, but for elected Councillors or MPs being lobbied by dissatisfied constituents, they help build a picture of incompetence – and in extreme cases fuel demands for legal challenges – causing delays and large potential costs.

Maybe the best response to anticipated political pressure is to take utmost care in the information published as part of the consultation. Many criticisms take the form of questioning assumptions or data upon which consultees are expected to rely upon when considering their positions. Expectations for transparency have steadily become more ambitious in recent years and politicians are adept at spotting those occasions where consultors are seen to be hiding something. Recent High Court cases have struck down Government decisions because the data published in the preceding consultations were inadequate. They were held to be ‘irrational’.

Not all public consultations have this political dimension, but anyone familiar with local government will surely recognise that small-town politics can be as destructive and potentially problematic as any national dialogue. What we have now recognised, and The Politics of Consultation has highlighted is that smart organisations should start looking at this dimension early enough for it to be considered. Our Anticipating the Politics Workshop might be a very effective way of doing this. If interested, please contact Rebecca Wright on 01767 318350.

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 500 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 350 different Topic papers and over 50 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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