Forecasting public consultations in 2022
The COVID pandemic has made fools of many forecasters. This time last year, we based our assumptions on optimistic expectations that widespread vaccination would herald a gradual return to normality and that much needed changes in public services would occasion a heavy workload of public consultations.
We still hold to that view; but our timings have been shown to be wrong. Far from a progressive opening to more traditional business-as-usual patterns in 2021, both central and local government have been hesitant, with high levels of Covid19 infections inhibiting many of the forecast changes. Omicron was the final straw and persuaded many organisations to batten down the hatches further and postpone some scheduled projects or consultations. This also happened in England despite a Government denial of any lockdown.
Our analysis is still that there is pent-up demand, especially where some of the traditional ways of working are changing forever. The NHS is the most visible example, but many public services have been so affected by the pandemic that things can never be the same again. Examples include the Court service and other parts of the justice system; also, adult social care and children services – with continuing pressures to secure fundamental reform, which was not addressed by the Government’s summer announcement, despite protestations to the contrary. In England, the reorganisation of the NHS, and the promised integration with social care has deferred many re-configurations. In any event, the legislation is still meandering through Parliament, and the April 1st deadline seems unrealistic. Bear in mind that each of the 42 new Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) are required to develop a comprehensive engagement strategy, and given the understandable reassignment of many of the key communications staff to the booster jab campaign, few of them have been able to prioritise this essential task.
Where there WILL be action and soon, is on the ‘Green agenda’. COP26 may be over, but it raised the profile of many aspects of the Net-Zero agenda. By using our new MIDAS data warehouse, we are already monitoring the growing number of policy decisions at all levels of government that require consultation of one kind or another. Many are technical as supply-chain issues, energy policy and transportation change in an unprecedented way. Planning and infrastructure developments must take account of climate mitigation strategies that were literally unthinkable a few years ago.
Local authorities, especially those who have proclaimed a ‘climate emergency’, will be under pressure to deliver radical solutions to a public that is now far better informed and alarmed about the dangers of doing nothing. Expect many proposals for local traffic schemes that that promote walking/cycling and seek to reduce car dependency. Look also for new community energy schemes and waste management initiatives with substantial public involvement. Communities will demand a say on such agendas, and some will run Citizens’ Assembles or equivalents to recommend priorities.
So, is there a discernible trend that we can identify, and which may play out in the coming months?
Maybe there is. And it may be an intensification of an existing move towards the gradual convergence of engagement and consultation. The latter is a dialogue process initiated by a ‘consultor’ with a defined timetable and an enforceable set of rules. Engagement, on the other hand, is far more flexible, can be undertaken in a variety of ways and is largely free of the onerous burdens of consultation. At a time of continuing uncertainty, it is unsurprising that public bodies have opted for less rigid forms of public involvement. When forward planning is so hazardous, and when some types of engagement can be switched on and off with fewer consequences, embarking upon a formal public consultation can be viewed as a less attractive option. This especially applies when the aim is to gather initial views upon potential solutions to a problem – hence the growing popularity of the phrase Call for evidence.
All this may be to the good if it encourages wider participation in our democracy. But where difficult decisions must be made, and where lives and livelihoods will be seriously impacted, there remains no alternative but to conduct a process that provides safeguards for consultees. So, the pre-consultation engagement that we once advocated as a prudent check and balance to ensure that communities and interest groups had a voice in determining the underlying assumptions or the choice of options, now becomes an absolute necessity. Today, we may be going beyond the mere synchronisation of engagement and consultation. – and moving closer to a fully integrated approach – where genuine engagement is a continuous process, punctuated by a programme of consultations as the most challenging subjects – and the most ‘wicked’ issues are considered.
In 2022, a tough economic backcloth, plus the inherent destabilising effect of the pandemic, will probably make all governments and public bodies hesitant about public engagement and consultation. However, they will not be able to avoid it, and if they try, the media and the Courts will be quick to criticise. The last two years have taught everyone that no-one can any longer take the status-quo for granted; significant, unexpected changes of all kinds can suddenly come upon us out of a clear blue sky. More communities, more businesses, more associations and more individuals will be acutely aware of their rights, and in a democracy, this includes the right to have a say.
It will be a busy consultation year…
Our 2021 predictions (paraphrased):
- The appetite for public involvement is rising, not falling.
Top-down decision-making will have frustrated many individuals and community stakeholders. Many will conclude that there must be better ways to express views and exert influence.
- Digital engagement is here to stay, but there will be a (limited) backlash.
The inevitable mode-switch will continue but face-to-face communication will re-start amid concern for the digitally-disadvantaged or those who are seldom-online.
- It is clear that many organisations will need important consultations by the Summer, but face difficulties with forward planning.
To recover lost time on overdue consultations, there will be difficulties allocating resources and finding time to ensure adequate pre-consultation. Imaginative solutions needed in 2021.
- There will be skills & experience shortages throughout public services; consultancies will do well!
Reallocation of key Communications & engagement staff in 2020 has eroded many organizations’ capabilities, so recruitment, training and upskilling existing teams (even when furloughed) will be a priority
- If there is an explosion of consultation, there will be a big demand for templates and blueprints.
As new ways of working and delivering services take hold in 2021, there may be an unprecedented rush to consultation – especially if COP26 becomes a seminal event stimulating behaviour change initiatives. If so, expect a demand for exemplars and templates which the Institute can provide