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Metro Mayors deny they were consulted …

In recent days, municipal leaders have queued up to complain that they have not been adequately consulted about imminent plans for further actions to seek to contain the COVID-19 second wave. As this is written, a dialogue finally seems underway.

Yet, in a series of public statements last week, the leaders of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Leeds shared their dismay at being frozen out of discussions about decisions that will affect millions of their constituents.

One of them included the prophetic words: – To be effective, local restrictions need local engagement – not just with politicians like me but with the people who will have to live with them.

Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham tweeted more bluntly: “No discussion. No consultation. Millions of lives affected by Whitehall diktat. It is proving impossible to deal with this Government.”

Directly-elected Mayors were willed upon sceptical cities specifically to replace the previous anonymity of local leadership with higher-profile individuals who would carry more clout. The nine Metro Mayors that represent over 20 million people (inc London) cannot just be dismissed as self-promoting complainers; they may have as much legitimacy as many a Minister. And they obviously know and understand their local areas better than Whitehall Mandarins or special advisers.

So what exactly did they mean when they said they had not been consulted? We know that there had been meetings – albeit virtual. Civil servants were apparently in regular contact with local Government officers. And Ministers claimed that there had been ‘involvement’.

What more did the Mayors need?

In this context, forget about the more formal models of consultation. This is not about public consultation. Events move fast; time does not permit. This is about informal stakeholder consultation. Decision-makers are taking the precaution of having a meaningful dialogue before taking action. The method can vary. It does not absolutely have to be a document. We now know that you may not need to be in the same room. The same zoom perhaps? Can it even be a single phone call? In other words, the method – though a possible indicator – is not conclusive. It is the motive for the dialogue that really matters. Are decision-makers genuinely wanting to consider the views of others? Or merely keen to announce or (if lucky) explain decisions that they have already taken.

Expectations play a rather significant part of the equation. If you have high hopes of a full discussion of possible options, and to think seriously about their impacts, it is easy to be disappointed. If you are only expecting tokenistic platitudes, it is possible to be pleasantly surprised if decision-makers ask for your opinions. Maybe this accounts for the confusion.

For anyone unsure, here are four questions stakeholders can ask if wondering whether a consultation actually took place:-
1. Were you told that the decision-maker was considering a decision that might significantly affect your interests?
2. Did that decision-maker engage with you before making up his/her/its mind?
3. Did it share with you truthfully all the relevant information that would influence the decision
4. Were you given enough time to consider any proposals?

There is much more, of course – but that’s a reasonable start. The well-known legal rules of consultation have mostly been developed in the context of large-scale exercises targeting thousands of citizens. But, in principle, they are equally relevant to smaller-scale, less transparent discussions.

Maybe what the Mayors really want is more transparency! Not only do they want to influence decisions. They need to be seen to have influence. After all, who will be bothered to vote in the next Mayoral election in 2021 if there is no sign that the successful candidate will be heard? The extent to which status confers upon the leadership the right to be consulted is another – and interesting debate, but for now the pent-up demand for consultation is something Ministers must address today.

They should not be fobbed-off with inadequate imitations.

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’.

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