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How ‘hard-to-reach’ became ‘seldom-heard’

One of the success-stories of the last of decades has been the gradual acceptance by consultors, that their attempts to engage stakeholders and the public have to be more socially inclusive. Seeking the views of the usual suspects was always easier than building relationships with communities and groups who are less accustomed to the culture and processes of British bureaucracy!

Most public bodies – and the more socially-aware private firms – today recognise that they do a better job if they take account of the diverse nature of modern society. In spite of all the scepticism and the backlash against ‘political correctness’, the equalities agenda has made a big difference. Managers at all levels are definitely more aware of the need to avoid discrimination on a much wider range of grounds.

When the Institute began 15 years ago, the accepted terminology for many of those representing minority groups was ‘hard-to-reach’. It was a deeply flawed expression and caused justifiable offence. The truth was that many of these were in fact relatively easy to find! What was more difficult is to engage with them. Traditional tried-and-tested methods that worked for the usual suspects were far less effective for these groups and far more participative techniques were required. In this respect, social media has helped enormously.

Reaching them became less of an issue. The challenge was listening to them. That is why the term seldom-heard was adopted. It is still not a perfect description, partly because there are groups which are often heard – but ignored. It does, however convey the essence of the matter – that we are dealing with people and organisations that rarely have the same opportunities to express themselves as other stakeholders.

It boils down to a matter of mindset. The usual suspects, after all, included many organisations whose size, tradition, culture and ethos integrated them well into the wily ways of British public administration. They knew their way around the corridors of power (be it national or local), they occasionally wined and dined with decision-makers, and they shared similar values …. and lifestyles. In short, they all knew the rules of the “game”.

An essential feature of the “game” was that you won some and lost some.

Professional consultees never expected to win every argument, and could be patient, recognising that the wheels of policy-making often ground very slowly, and that abrupt change rarely happened

Today, the world is very different. Accelerated timescales mean quick decisions and the need to gather consultee views in a hurry. Seldom-heard groups can rarely employ lobbyists or professional consultants. They have to learn how to express their views and mobilise support at breakneck speed They have no interest in playing the “game” – they just want results. Social media has become the mobilisation method of choice, for those whose interests are most at risk from consultation proposals. It is now less a question of ‘reaching’ these people, but of enabling them to be heard.

New techniques such as social listening have a role to play here, and Institute Associates are beginning to find this a must have facility for our leading edge clients.


This article is based upon a Tuesday Topic originally published in May 2005

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’.

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