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Pre-consultation: Opening Pandora’s Box?

As we developed training courses for the Institute, many topics naturally suggested themselves to us.  Technical subjects like focus groups, surveys and questionnaires, data analysis etc. were obvious areas for us to tackle. We created courses on different aspects of legislation, on social media, on equality and the challenging world of the law of consultation itself. Courses were designed for those just starting their consultation journey and for those with considerable experience who need to keep their knowledge fresh, for this is a world of change.

With much relish we created a portfolio of training that has been acknowledged as the most comprehensive anywhere, or even across the globe, according to our friends in the World Bank!

One subject, however, that we were really reluctant to get too involved in was the whole tricky area of pre-consultation. Although we certainly mentioned it was required as the first step before a ‘proper’ consultation, we never went too deeply into exactly how it should be done. Why? If I’m honest, it was because this is a minefield and even defining exactly what pre-consultation is can be fraught with difficulties. On occasions when this was raised we would have delegates with hugely varying ideas as to what it meant.

The definition we now support says that pre-consultation is, “Discussions which take place between a consultor, key influencers and key stakeholders, with a view to clarifying the issues, determining the scope and considering the processes of a forthcoming consultation.”

At this stage you will need to take note of what those key influencers are thinking, for they will impact you, also how key stakeholders will react because they will be affected by your decisions. You have to tread very carefully before options are ready for examination in a consultation and not start the debate too early. This is extremely difficult in situations where stakeholders, and indeed the public, are pretty convinced you are about to close a cherished service or remove a benefit previously enjoyed. They will wade in with campaigns and communications, which can be extremely detrimental to a consultation project.

So, how can you avoid opening Pandora’s Box – the source of troubles and navigate this turbulent period? For some disciplines, like planning, pre-application consultation is a statutory obligation; everyone knows it has to happen, but this does not mean consultors should skate through it without a care. Pre-consultation in any field is a critical time of presenting the issues, exploring what will and will not be up for influence, working out who should be involved and the most effective ways to achieve that.  It can be done. It requires officers with requisite skills and genuine support from their managers who understand that getting this right is not an optional extra or tedious hurdle to cross.

Big life events involve a huge amount of organisation. If you’ve ever planned a wedding or suchlike you will know how this can take over your existence and lead to sleepless nights of fretting about the exact details to achieve the perfection you seek. Hopefully, your efforts will be rewarded. If you are a fan of the “Bake Off” TV programme you will appreciate that the contestants have done an extraordinary amount of work to plan their creations and practice doing them, so all will (hopefully!) go right when they are under the pressure of the real thing.

It used to be that doing a consultation was the tricky part. However, if you have done your preparations to the most exacting standards then the actual exercise will go much better. Good pre-consultation is the key… but don’t underestimate the challenge.

I am glad to say, that we do now face up to this challenge too and have many Institute members who can testify to the benefits.

About the Author

Elizabeth’s career has taken her from teaching, through work in the public affairs industry and into the world of public consultation and engagement. As a Director of the Institute, she has helped to develop many of its unique products and services since 2003.

She is the joint author, with Rhion Jones, of “The Art of Consultation” and "The Politics of Consultation". She has researched widely on the subject – both for material for training courses and in order to deliver presentations and executive briefings, particularly on the impact of the law.

Read more about Elizabeth

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