Is it ever right to ‘name and shame’ a public consultation?
In our newsletter two weeks ago, we published an article under the title “The worst consultation narrative of the year?” It featured proposals for service changes affecting the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton and unsurprisingly aroused much enthusiasm among its opponents.
Local newspapers quoted our article, and members of the Institute telephoned to say they were glad we were highlighting unsatisfactory situations. The Clinical Commissioning Group concerned declined to comment.
This is not normally our style. Over the years, the Institute has worked behind the scenes, running training courses and equipping public engagement staff to identify and observe best practice. Where public bodies feel they need some help, we provide Advice & Guidance. Where they feel that a consultation may be unfairly criticised, they commission us to undertake and publish a Quality Assurance of their work.
There is a case for ‘naming and shaming.’ It makes things real. No amount of theory is quite as effective as providing a practical example of what is good – or what is bad. It responds to those who think that failures are rare, or historic by illustrating current documents or current processes. Whenever we announce that we have found an example of poor practice, newsletter readers flock to the site – it brings online traffic to read about consultation. It may even prompt those responsible to acknowledge their mistakes and seek assistance; it may encourage citizens affected by the consultation to demand higher standards.
On the other hand, people would be less than human if they did not resent criticism, no matter how constructive. The Institute has no wish to alienate or antagonise colleagues and others working on consultations. If we appear intolerant or arrogant, it may dissuade organisations from engaging with us. Might we possibly risk being inconsistent – being harsher with some than others? Could we even be accused of favouritism – or even putting pressure on public bodies to use our services?
This is why we have erred on being cautious. In all 350 Tuesday Topics since 2003, there have only been about half a dozen where we have overtly criticised specific consultations. There needs to be some trigger that prompts the Institute to consider that the balance of advantage justifies identifying poor practice. In 2017, we called out the Mayor of London’s consultation on closing police counters. A year later, it led to a judicial review which became one of the most significant cases of recent years.
In the NHS, we have seen visible improvements to public consultations in recent years. NHS England can take credit for this, but we still see outliers that fall well below standard. We felt that Northallerton was one of those – though we also concede that other aspects of its consultation were far more acceptable; the questions-set was, in fact, better than many. However, the kernel of an argument is the ‘narrative’ that is normally captured in a consultation paper. In fact, a consultation is probably only as good as its narrative.
One can deploy the best dialogue methods available and engage with all the right stakeholders, meticulously ‘mapped’, but if the fundamental proposition is faulty, then the consultation will rarely have the influence it should.
This Institute believes passionately in the value of listening to consultee views, and we recognise our responsibility to tread that fine line between encouragement and discouragement.
By occasionally naming and shaming, are we helping or hindering?
Please let us know your views.
 R (ex p Kohler) v The Mayor’s Office for Policing & Crime (MOPAC)  EWHC 1881