Manual Transmission – Does consultation act as an accelerator or a brake? Or do we need the third foot-pedal?

From the Institute Archives – this is based upon Tuesday Topic 57, published in April 2006

There’s a real debate about the role that consultation plays in achieving significant social or political change.

Some say that going to consultation is a sure-fire way to slow down progress. Produce a radical idea that challenges existing vested interests, and howls of protest manifest themselves in all kinds of ways – including responses to the consultation. Cynics argue that embarrassing commitments made in the heat of election campaigns can be quietly buried by the deluge of detailed commentary deliberately generated by the formal processes of dialogue.

For those who believe that public opinion and the media follow rather than lead on matters of social change, one can see that many liberal reforms in the 20th century might have been delayed had there been full consultation with a public. Might change have been delayed on issues such as capital punishment, abortion, prostitution or gay rights? As Boris Johnson’s recent writings reveal, public dialogue on matters affecting religious, ethnic or linguistic minorities can uncover prejudices which a consultation exercise can easily magnify. Is it possible that the more we talk about some subjects, the more entrenched people’s views become?

Any Planning Officer will tell you that opponents to a development scheme are far more likely to participate in a consultation than supporters! In short, consultation often acts as a brake.

There is, however, another side to this story; on occasions consultation acts as an accelerator! Campaigners lobbying for a cause may often struggle to get the attention of the mainstream media, but find that the distillation of general arguments into a reasoned consultation narrative complete with options for discussion can act as a breakthrough. Just think of the effect of the recent consultation on single-use plastics. A debate is suddenly noticed by those who had not previously been involved and people wake up to realise that reform they might have thought impossible might be achievable after all.

From this viewpoint come a suggestion that consultation acts as a major force of public and stakeholder education. Debate broadens the perspective, allows a wider range of voices to be heard, and provides fertile soil for good ideas to take root. In short, consultation accelerates progress and moves people on…..

This tension is rather like looking at a car that has automatic transmission. There are two foot-pedals – an accelerator and a brake. This short paper has presented the arguments for both, but maybe the key to the whole issue lies in looking for that third pedal – the clutch – the one that’s there to ensure that the power of the engine is transmitted effectively to the road. This is the one that provides traction!

This is really what governs whether consultation becomes a power for progressive debate or just a delaying tactic. The best forms of traction involve reaching out to more people in a meaningful way, and in serious debate. It means broadening the dialogue and engaging seldom heard groups or communities. It means getting to the nub of an issue and rising beyond superficial clichés or the re-statement of existing positions. It means involving people creatively to search for solutions; co-production is a great idea.

In the motor car analogy, the effectiveness of manual transmission is that one can metaphorically move up the gears, and carry a debate forward, often in an iterative sequence of consultations as the debate moves on and stakeholders’ understanding of issues and options deepen. It means serious investment and a commitment to all the standards of meaningful consultation – but the rewards can be worthwhile.

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 400 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 300 different Topic papers and over 40 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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