How nice should you be to campaigners and consultees?
They can be among your fiercest critics. Or worse. They can appear hell bent on disrupting the consultation you have painstakingly organised.
Opponents of proposals contained in public consultations vary enormously. At one end of the spectrum they can be well-resourced, seasoned pressure groups, well-aware of the do’s and don’ts of campaigning. At the other extreme are anxious or upset individuals thrashing around looking for someone to blame. Somewhere in between are ad hoc community groups springing up to fight for or against something or another.
Managing relationships with such consultees has always been a tricky balancing act. You want to be helpful, to provide them with information and to respond to their queries. But some make it harder for you. How to handle that request for answers to 42 questions. By Monday, please? Or the Facebook posting they published – that you regard as a distortion. Your boss says it’s fake news! And what about the occasion when they turn up at your Drop-In Centre and distribute leaflets saying the consultation is all a pack of lies?
Read the news story that’s published today from the Wolverhampton Express and Star. Its headline is Sprint bus meeting was ‘a complete waste of time’ and it describes the deteriorating relationship between a body called the ‘A34 Safety Action Group’ and Transport for West Midlands. The group represents the views of residents and businesses who are unhappy about plans for the so-called ‘Sprint buses’ that may travel between Walsall and Birmingham city centre.
Like many campaigners, they are complaining about a meeting where they believe they were not being heard properly. Transport leaders dispute this and also point to a consultation exercise held last year. Again, like other proposal opponents the group says ‘Not good enough’ and argue for another consultation. In the middle of this wrangle, however comes the plaintive cry “they’re just not showing us any kind of respect at all.”
And it prompts the reflection that time and again, what upsets consultees is not just the substantive argument, but the way they are treated. They want to be taken seriously. They want public bodies to acknowledge their right to be there, and to be heard. For many of them it is simply unacceptable to be told to visit a website somewhere and complete an online survey. They feel this relegates them to form of techno-anonymity; reduced to a numbers-game inside a consultation analysis where the issues are de-personalised.
It comes at a time when developments in the Law of consultation, and the political fallout from BREXIT et al has diminished faith in many public institutions, and where people are emboldened to challenge what they are told, and even the integrity of those who are telling them. They will no longer be fobbed off with poor-quality consultations that make no attempt to engage with those who have strong views about proposals for change.
It is one of the reasons why the Institute supports the idea of Consultee Rights, as outlined in The Politics of Consultation. As Court cases have repeatedly shown in recent years, consultees are not powerless. Judges have repeatedly found in their favour when consultations have been shown to break the rules or been unfair to those that are affected.
To the three rights we advocate – the right to know; the right to be heard and the right to influence, maybe we should have added a fourth. We could call it the right to respect, for, as the A34 story illustrates, any perceived lack of courtesy or consideration adds to the disaffection of campaigners.
They may try your patience. They may even cause serious problems by breaking what you perceive to be the rules of engagement in or beyond a consultation. But it needs mature minds, a steady hand and a resolute recognition that consultees are entitled to a degree of consideration we have not always observed.
- Law of Consultation courses are held on a regular basis; the next available days are:
- 13th Feb – London
- 27th March – York
- Consultee Rights Workshops can be delivered by Institute Associates; ask for details