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What can you do if you are unhappy about a public consultation?

Many of us have heard the story a hundred times.

“There’s something wrong with this consultation; I’m sure they’re only going through the motions.”

Or “It’s a done deal.”

Or “It’s unfair; they won’t listen to anyone.

These sentiments are often followed by a shrug of the shoulders and a suggestion that it clearly won’t be worth anyone’s time to respond to the exercise.

Those of us working in public engagement may be even more critical.

“That’s a question we would never phrase in that way.”

OR

“We would always provide a better opportunity for residents to respond.”

When the consultation matters to you, what is your best course of action?

You could of course, approach the consultor, and, if enough well-informed people do the same, there is always a chance that responsible public bodies might respond. But the omens are not good. At best, you might receive a polite acknowledgement and a promise to note your concerns at the end of the exercise. The only really effective remedy is to go to a solicitor and threaten the organisation with a formal legal challenge – the ubiquitous ‘letter before claim’. If the consultor is unpersuaded, you have the option of seeking a judicial review which will cost tens of thousands of pounds and take forever.

Even then, what you are testing is its legal vulnerability. It is not the only aspect – as public consultations can be vulnerable to political as well as media challenge.

Consultees and others with an interest in a consultation need a better way to express and explore their dissatisfaction with exercises that can seriously affect their interests. That is why the Institute has devised a framework for Mediation and Arbitration which, over the years can become established as a low-cost route to resolving some of those disputes that need not occupy our expensive legal system, but nevertheless still need addressing.

Its logical starting point is to consider the extent to which there is anything wrong. Relatively few consultees are experts in consultation – so we have launched an easy-to-use, free service that anyone can access on the MIDASresolve website. We call it the Vulnerability Checklist.

The idea is simple. By asking you some questions about the consultation that has caused you concern, it seeks to assess how vulnerable it might be. Do not worry if you do not know the answer to some of the questions. The whole purpose is to identify what you do know and help build a picture that can lead to a more thorough analysis in due course. By weighting your answers and applying our algorithm to the results, we can quickly tell you how the consultation appears to score on our Vulnerability meter!

Having seen the result, you have the option of identifying the specific consultation and starting the process of investigation that can lead into our more structured Mediation process. The reality is that, armed with the right assessment of a consultation’s strengths and weaknesses, the Institute might well be able to enter into a constructive dialogue on your behalf with a consultor organisation and without incurring the unpopularity that lawyers occasionally encounter!

We would like to encourage a culture whereby consultations are routinely checked against our standards, so if you are interested, please try out our Vulnerability Checklist. Remember that Is this fair? is an excellent and legitimate consideration – especially when consulting local communities which may be unfamiliar with the decision-making in Councils and other bureaucracies.

The Institute welcomes feedback on this and other aspects of our new services. So please try it and let us know by emailing info@consultationinstitute.org

To access MIDASresolve, click here.

Or watch the MIDASresolve short introductory video here.

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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