If it’s good news – do we still need to consult?
A few days ago, the newspapers were unanimous. One headline declared Summer’s back on. Another proclaimed a Magic Monday. The Daily Mail said Hurrah.
Perhaps we can excuse the media, so tired of covering grim news of the pandemic over recent weeks. But it raises an old but very real question. Do you really need to consult if it’s good news?
The answer, of course, is mostly yes, but it may be worth rehearsing why it is necessary.
- Good news, like beauty, is often in the eyes of the beholder. In simple terms, it depends who you ask. Whilst the easing of lockdown may be more universally popular than many other announcements, it is not without its critics, and it is noticeable that day-one euphoria in the press gave way to a more nuanced coverage on day-two as scientists and others expressed their doubts. Evidence that the Government had indeed consulted SAGE was useful for it. Had it not done so, its position would have been less tenable.
- The devil is in the detail. As those who have studied the Guidance that accompanies the easing of lockdown restrictions have discovered, what sounds like good news at headline level can be hugely problematic at more granular levels. Many public policies sound great in principle but pose practical problems for those required to implement them. Witness Government announcements of opening schools in England without sufficient consultation with teachers.
- There are winners and losers. We seldom hear demands for consultation from those likely to benefit from proposals, but it is a regular feature of opposition. Too many public bodies accept this reality with the view “Well they would, wouldn’t they?” Consider the archetypal NHS consultation that seeks to centralise key facilities in one of two adjacent hospitals. Cynics argue that a consultation merely becomes a postcode vote, as people express preference for their local facility. In truth, a failure to hear their arguments merely increases the sense of grievance – and would probably be unlawful.
- It’s easy to overlook some of the impacts. It is human nature to focus on the positive but it can lead to unintended consequences where significant impacts may be restricted to small groups or minority interests. One can imagine Communications experts anxious not to dilute the simplicity of a good news message with any ifs and buts. Where seldom heard groups are particularly affected, there is a danger that their views simply will not cut through the layers of decision-making without there having been a specific exercise to seek them out and hear their opinions.
- Good news … could be even better. Decision-makers, especially politicians, are a little prone to want to take all the credit for popular actions. There is a disinclination to share the credit with too many others. Yet a wider consensus is often better in the long-run. Stakeholders can also have good ideas, and there is generally scope to make good ideas accumulate and become even more effective. Widening the dialogue as policies and programmes are developed is almost always beneficial. Co-production is so much more saleable than a top-down decision, no matter how popular.
This is not just a national issue. Every local authority, every NHS Trust or CCG, every police force, every regulator … they all announce good news and are often in a hurry to provide reassurance or seek support. Why delay the happy day? Why risk leaks and let others take the credit? (Not that good news is usually leak-proof; in the case of easing lockdown, the media had been fed kite-flying, happy news stories for several weeks)
Fundamentally, however, there is an even bigger reason to consult on good news. It is to build trust and foster good relationships with citizens and communities. If you only ever consult them on bad news, do not be surprised if they form a negative view of your organisation, its values, priorities and decision-making. Astute leaders know the value of continuous engagement as it builds greater trust – a commodity that can be really useful when times are tough and the decisions hard. To deny your main stakeholders a share in the joy of something beneficial is to relegate them to the status of ‘authorised complainers’ – granted a hearing only when bad news is around.
So, for all those pleased with the recent announcements from Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff (just!) and the Prime Minister, rejoice for the moment, and hope that, behind the scenes, there has been sufficient genuine consultation for the news to be sustainable.
If there has not, then expect to see a raft of organisations claiming it’s gone wrong because ‘we were not consulted’!