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Recommendations for maintaining and improving citizens’ engagement during COVID-19 restrictions

Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)4 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on the participation of citizens in local public life (Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 21 March 2018 at the 1311th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies) sets out the CoE position from more normal times.

All public bodies, from the very local to the inter-governmental grapple with the challenges of appropriate public engagement – when should it happen, how, with what controls and on what terms? Who can take part, are they representative? How do we stimulate, manage and measure the relevant processes and, most importantly, the beneficial outcomes for citizens?

These questions are intensified during the current COVID-19 crisis. The pinnacle of many engagement and consultation exercises was, in the past, often the Public Meeting – where passionate and knowledgeable citizens could argue face-to-face with city bureaucrats and demonstrate their anger or support for whatever proposal was on the table. Can that be replicated in a ‘virtual’ online setting?

Let us start with the theory, using the formal Public Consultation as our example; for a video glossary of Consultation terms and procedures.

If a Public Consultation goes well:

  • Citizens build trust and respect in their leaders
  • Participatory democracy is strengthened
  • Awareness of ‘difficult decisions’ is enhanced
  • The ‘balance of trade-offs’ necessary in governance is better understood by active citizens
  • The strength of feeling, anger, passion, commitment of citizens and their representatives is made apparent to decision-makers
  • Space for future compromises may be clarified
  • Deal-making between competing stakeholder interests may become easier to spot, and to broker
  • Better decisions are made, with more positive outcomes, sustainability and sense of ownership
  • Unnecessary costs are avoided
  • Accountability is improved through openness, honesty and sustainability
  • Community confidence and well-being is enhanced
  • The next Consultation draws more positive attention.

If, however, a Public Consultation goes badly:

  • Legal challenge may ensue – leading to delays, tension and lost opportunity
  • Media attention of a negative sort may draw unwanted or unwarranted attention
  • Political opponents may use the chance to lever alternative actions and outcomes
  • Costs can escalate, momentum is lost, a backlog is created
  • Trust and confidence in the public body declines
  • Decisions are harder to implement
  • Those who opposed may block implementation and withdraw future support
  • Supporters may become lukewarm or lose heart
  • It may encourage ‘copycat’ opposition on this and other issues
  • Democracy is undermined; voter participation may decline
  • Political capital is diminished
  • Investors, partners and allies may take fright
  • Your next consultation may be ‘dead in the water’.

So, how do we ensure that the principles of best practice consultation are upheld in these extraordinary times? Here is the Consultation Institute’s amended guidance for public Consultors:

Scope and Governance

The first task is to determine ‘who owns this Consultation’. What is the Consultation Mandate?

Is it needed? Why? What do you really need and want from this Consultation? Who will write it? Signed off by whom (person or Committee?) Who will run it? Who will collect the data from the different channels? What is the budget envelope? Who will decide on the outputs? Based on what? Who will be accountable for the final decision? How?

Pre-Consultation

This short process can help identify and clarify if the initial thinking is correct; have you scoped it correctly, too widely or too narrowly? Have you identified the key stakeholders? Are there other interests emerging, other possibilities? Are you sensing new solutions, or alternatively, new problems of which you were not previously aware?

Stakeholder Mapping

At this stage you may commence:

  • Stakeholder identification (who will have an ‘interest/stake’ in this Consultation); make sure to include ‘out of town’ stakeholders, ‘seldom heard’ stakeholders, special needs/equality groups, and particular interest groups on the topic;
  • Stakeholder profiling (who are they, what do they do, what membership is behind them? How influential are they?)
  • Stakeholder Mapping – bringing together a map of stakeholders by ‘interest/stake’ and ‘influence/power/status’ to enable appropriate resource allocation (human, financial and technical).

Consultation Plan would often cover:

  • Ownership, governance and accountability
  • Purpose (primary and secondary); what is the span of influence for consultees?
  • Timescales when, for how long?
  • Communication Plan – how will this Consultation be promoted to the right people; mainstream media, social media, advertisements, leaflets, billboards, TV and Radio, websites…?
  • Dialogue channels (matched to stakeholder type and expressed preference); range and variety; don’t ask questions whose answers you cannot gather and analyse; online and offline;
  • Data collection (by whom, how, security and privacy, and whether available publicly, with personal anonymity, if required)
  • Mid-term monitoring How is it going, are we reaching the right stakeholders, are there new issues emerging, do we need more publicity, more time?
  • Final Call opportunity to promote a ‘last chance’ to contribute
  • Data analysis (by whom, in-house or externally?)
  • Report-writing (by whom, to whom, with what level of evidence and detail?)
  • Decision-making (by whom, based on what influences, in public or private?)
  • Feedback (acknowledgment, thanks, what you (all) said, what we think it means, what we will do now, what outcomes occurred?
  • Announcement (this is what happened and why)
  • Evaluation (did we fulfil the Consultation Mandate, did we change our plans, how did stakeholders and consultees feel about the process?)

In these tricky times, you may find more online contributions to your engagement exercises, but are they from the right stakeholders? That is where the Stakeholder Mapping is so important, to help identify and engage the key affected parties, and then to find the methodologies through which to reach them.

Here are some revised dialogue channels for consideration:

  • You can email here…
  • You can text / SMS here…
  • You can go to our website and complete a web form here…
  • We will listen to comments on our Twitter / Facebook pages here…
  • We shall organise two webinars with experts, to debate the options
  • We shall organise six ‘kitchen table’ discussions – online – hosted by local stakeholders (say, one business, one resident, one artist, one young person, one NGO, one environmentalist)
  • As Mayor, I shall undertake a ‘VIP Chat’ on Facebook / chosen platform for one hour, on XXX, to hear your views personally and to respond to your knowledgeable insights about the issue and its future.

This article was originally written for Council of Europe’s newsroom.

About the Author

Quintin is a successful serial social entrepreneur having helped set up and develop many initiatives over four decades, from the European in the 70s, through the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) in the 80s, the ‘YES Campaign’ for the N. Ireland referendum on the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and his own political consultancy Stratagem International in the 90s, followed by the Consultation Institute and DemocraShe in recent years.

Read more about Quintin

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