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Mind the gap

How consultation has to cover the macro and the micro

An increasing challenge for consultors is creating narratives that span the divide between the wider context ‘big picture’ and the here-and-now local dimensions upon which we often consult.

Right now, we have two excellent examples.

  • Climate science tells us that restraining global warming  to 2°C is essential and requires zero-emissions by 2050. It means massive changes in the way almost everything works. Buildings account for 17% of our current emissions; road transport is 12%; shipping and flights are 2% each. Heavy industry is also deeply implicated. Iron and steel contribute 8%; petrochemicals 6% and cement 3%. One can visualise the pie-chart, and in general, the people understand it. These are numbers they find meaningful, and when they watch on television, the shrinking of the Arctic ice or the destruction of rainforests, they can put images to the data. The ‘big picture’ is not much in dispute.
  • The second wave of Coronavirus is clearly upon us. Not only in the UK but also in those European countries that went to lockdown earlier than the UK first time around. The graphs provide a clear story. The data – be it on infections, hospital admissions or deaths tell the same story. The trajectory of the pandemic seems not in dispute, though the speed is much debated. Public confidence in politicians may be low (Scotland excepted) but the reputation of SAGE and other scientists remains high. When it was reported that the scientists recommended stricter measures some weeks ago, the official opposition backed them, and there is some evidence a majority of people supported the case. On the magnitude of the challenge, and the urgency of the problem, again, the ‘big picture’ is not in dispute.

Where difficulties arise is bridging the gap between the macro and the micro. It is one thing to acknowledge a greater good that we need to support; quite another to accept unpalatable options that affect us personally. Had we consulted the great British public about the deprivations of the March 2020 lockdown, we would have probably found a high degree of support for the Government’s actions. Seven months later, the picture is less clear. The public is not being directly consulted, but, after a long delay, municipal leaders are being heard. And they no longer accept what they are told without question. The ‘big picture’ is no longer enough. They probe the science; they want to consider local implications; they want reassurance that local sacrifices will indeed address the problem. In other words, devising credible local options and local trade-offs is becoming a challenge.

Now let us consider the climate change dilemma. Most people understand the overall picture. In a consultation, therefore, on policy-changes such as phasing out petrol and diesel engines for new cars within ten years, chances are that it would garner significant support. It is a distant action, having no immediate impact. Indeed, Capgemini has just published a Report called ‘Technology Quests’ listing 55 ‘leaps in innovation’ needed for Europe to reach net-zero by 2050. It is full of exciting solutions from wave power to hydrogen-powered lorries and ammonia-powered ships, but again involve initiatives one or two stages removed from citizens and voters. Everyone says, Yes. And yet, when presented today with plans for cycle-lanes or other disruptive transport options, communities are far less certain. No amount of ‘big picture’ consensus makes it easy to welcome unpopular behaviour change.

Local authorities who have declared a ‘climate emergency’ are finding it difficult to make a difference – and whilst the distraction of the pandemic is a problem, it also presents an opportunity to make big changes. The desire to return to a new ‘greener’ normal has promoted the term ‘Green recovery’. Here, maybe it is the best opportunity to test the public appetite for step-function change. Public engagement will be critical.

So the challenge for those who are planning consultations is to offer a narrative that makes sense in local as well as global terms. This is where greater participation really helps. Be they expensive Citizens’ Assemblies or cheap’n cheerful online forums; it is always best to generate local proposals from bottom-up, and based upon local knowledge. We need to avoid: “We are the experts; we know you understand the big picture, and this is what we now think is good for you!” This top-down approach should be time-expired by now but persists, probably because decision-makers are worried that local people may insist upon conditions and costs which they don’t wish to absorb. Is this not what has happened in the consultation that eventually took place between the Government and leaders of Councils in the North-West last week?

Here is the crux. Between the macro ‘big picture’ and the micro of local responses is the small matter of resources. How much is neededWhere does it come fromAnd will people be convinced about burden-sharing? Both in response to Covid-19 and in the investment for Green Recovery – the two issues considered today – the reluctance to consult may stem from a suspicion that public support for action will be accompanied by reasoned arguments for fairness in burden-sharing and making sacrifices.

That, however, is the essence of consultation. It can help identify the terms upon which behaviour changes are acceptable to different groups or stakeholders. Unlike the inflexibility of mechanistic Yes/No direct democracy, such as referendums, a well-designed consultation can highlight ‘Yes … if’ or ‘No … unless’ findings.

That is why when the ‘big picture’ is clear, but immediate local options are more uncertain, consultation is an excellent way forward.

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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