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Tackling the ‘black hole’ of consultation

The Case for Public Consultation Hearings 

In its latest Briefing Paper, the Institute argues the case for Public Consultation Hearings. In the recommended format, organisations undertaking a consultation will provide the opportunity for selected consultees to appear before decision-makers and give their evidence and their viewpoint – a little like Parliamentary Select Committees.  

It is not a new idea, but there are important reasons why the time is right to consider these forms of dialogue:

  • People are heartily fed up with perfunctory, tick-in-the box forms of dialogue, especially simplistic online surveys with questions like ‘Do you agree with us that we should revise the regulations …. Blah blah.? ‘ Serious stakeholders want a better level of debate that considers issues properly. Public hearings can help. 
  • We have to tackle what can be described on the week of Stephen Hawkins’ death) as the consultation ‘black hole’ It is where respondents make a submission or reply to a consultation but have no idea what happens to their views. Does anyone read them? Are they considered? If so, by whom. It is as if responses disappear down a black home never to reappear. Public hearings are one way to demonstrate that consultors listen! 
  • All the emphasis is now on digital dialogues, and they have many fine features that encourage participation by large numbers who might not have responded using traditional methods. Public hearings can be a welcome antidote to the de-personalisation of electronic media – where real people can be seen to sit down and discuss evidence. Video-streaming can make this visible and transparent to far wider audiences, and be living proof that consultation is really taking place. 

The Briefing Paper looks at the role of evidence in public debate, and the need for participants in consultations to evidence their claims and assertions. It then presents the arguments in favour of public hearings, and explores whether they might work in the context of public consultations. For existing public engagement practitioners, the most valuable section may well be on the practicalities of organising a programme of hearings and the challenges that might need to be overcome. 

Our conclusion is that where there is a considerable amount of public interest, or where the subject-matter is deeply controversial, they will help convince sceptical communities that decision-makers care enough to explore the issues openly and in public. There is even a case for holding events like this well before a consultation is launched. A pre-consultation exploration of key issues and an opportunity for stakeholder to spell out what they would like to see considered might be a first-rate way of involving the public. Used in this way, hearings can even form part of a co-production approach. 

Make your own mind up by reading the latest ‘Briefing Paper 35’ which you can view here if you are member. Alternatively contact Rebecca Wright to request a copy if you are not a member, or would like Institute Associates to help prepare a programme of Public Consultation Hearings for your own organisation.  

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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