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How objective can you be in consultations?

Can consultees ever provide you with unbiased opinions?

Last week, we were approached by someone working in the NHS, seeking advice about the wisdom of consulting the public about the location of a new facility. Apparently, there were two viable options, but, paraphrasing a little, the suggestion was that consultee views would merely reflect their postcodes. Those nearest to Location One would, to all intents and purposes ‘vote’ for their more local option; those close to Location Two would do the same. All that consultors might learn therefore is which community managed to organise more of its supporters to participate in the exercise. What’s the point?

Indeed a constant critique of consultation has always been that the process tends to favour existing stakeholders – especially those who have a vested interest. Those who are desperately concerned to preserve the status quo, or who have a significant financial or other stakes in avoiding serious change, will obviously use the consultation to press their case. Equally, campaigners for that change will use the consultation to advocate their cause with enthusiasm. Public policy-making has, for years, relied upon specialists providing well-informed input and consultation is but one mechanism for achieving this. It is not the only process. Civil servants, local government officers, NHS managers and all the other senior public sector managers will engage in a variety of ways. Consultation merely happens to be the more formal mechanism – and the one that is legally enforceable.

For as long as consultations were of the ‘big-fat-document’ variety, there was much truth in this analysis. These were the people or organisations able to respond in detail and who had the motivation to spend time and talent to do so. If we use less bureaucratic methods and ask ordinary members of the public for their opinions on many policy issues, we will probably just receive a ‘gut feel’ or a reflection of mass-media messages. If an individual is personally affected, then the response will reflect both the extent of the impact and the degree to which the respondent understands (and has confidence in) that impact. Where there is no such impact, will people bother to respond at all?

As a result, consultations are much more likely to mobilise those who care about a particular subject and who are willing to express their views on it. That is why they are not a vote. They are more a distillation of the arguments and a tool to understand the consequences of decisions. At first glance, therefore, they may be best suited to stakeholders rather than the general public. Look deeper, however, and recognise that confining a consultation to those immediately impacted would be seen as denying the rest of us a voice in what happens. 

Today, the holy grail is discovering what ‘ordinary people’ think about something. Experts have often been discounted – and not just by Michael Gove. The reputations of once- venerable institutions have been dented, and the idea that subject-specialists are an unelected elite resonates in many quarters. It explains the attraction of opinion polling and the growing popularity of Citizens Juries or Citizens Assemblies. Both are established mechanisms but the evidence of their success as consultative processes is still slow to emerge.

The reason is not hard to find. Almost no-one is truly unbiased. We are all the product of our life experiences and reflect what our upbringing, our education and our social environment have brought us. Meticulous selection of participants can help remedy obvious gaps in the make-up of consultative machinery but still cannot make them truly representative. Permanent bodies such as Healthwatch or industry-specific Consumer Panels demonstrate how difficult it is to attract volunteers other than those with a specific – probably very worthy – motive for being interested. Even then, once they have served for any length of time, they cease being remotely typical of those whom they are meant to represent. That is why recruiting afresh for a single exercise is considered better – and, of course, more expensive. All other things being equal, this should provide a more objective perspective of the issues.

But are we, perhaps, mistaken in thinking that stakeholders with an interest cannot also be objective? Experience of participatory budgeting has persuaded observers that, counter-intuitively, groups promoting a specific funding bid are often able to assess other bids as more deserving and vote accordingly. Done properly, the overarching objective of the exercise instils in those who participate, a sense of the common good that transcends loyalty to their own pet project. Admittedly, some are sceptical, but there is much anecdotal evidence from focus groups and other deliberative methods that, when presented with the facts, people will often reconsider the bias inherent in their own self-interest.

The great advantage of consultation is that it is a flexible set of processes that enables one to consider people’s views – whatever bias they may reflect. The principle of Disclosure applies, and stakeholders must declare their interests. Good analysis will enable consultors to discern who is and who is not likely to be impacted and take this into account in the consideration phase. Returning to our starting point, our doctor friend is advised to put both locations to the public and let them express their preference and their reasoning – knowing that when the output is considered, their postcodes and all else we know about the respondents can be borne in mind.

 

TRIGGER POINTS

  1. Do you ask the right questions or assemble the right data to discover what might influence the views expressed by respondents?
  2. Do you use deliberative methods? And do you seek to engage with people not normally engaged by your organisation?
  3. Have you looked at the Institute’s e-learning courses as the Data Analysis may be relevant? The Consultation Charter course features Disclosure and all other seven principles.
  4. There have been many legal challenges to the NHS over reconfiguration proposals. Many of these have involved location changes. You can learn what happened to them in the Institute’s Law of Consultation training course. One day courses will run on the 13th of November in York and, for more in-depth consideration, consider attending the 2-day Masterclass  19th November-20th November in London.

 

This is the 352nd Tuesday Topic; a full list of subjects covered is available for Institute members and is a valuable resource covering so many aspects of consultation and engagement.

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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