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Toolkit Time – Producing a Consultation Toolkit is a sound investment but needs to complement rather than replace traditional staff training

Even the smallest Local Authority today finds itself engaged in multiple public or stakeholder consultations. Many of these are departmentally-based, and because they are closely associated with the normal day-to-day work of the function, it has become normal practice for policy or customer service staff within these specialisms to absorb the work of organising consultations …in addition to their normal tasks.

This is probably the reason for the recent trend towards creating Toolkits. It is a recognition that many people have to turn their hands to consultation tasks without the benefit of formal training. It’s also an excellent way of encouraging the adoption of common standards and, for example, observing a house style for external communications.

Some toolkits are brilliant. We recently saw a magnificent masterpiece, hand-built by experts, no doubt, and published with such style that all it lacked was a gold presentation case! Hopefully, the staff for whom it was intended were suitably impressed; certainly they had been given advice on virtually every aspect of consultation processes.

And yet, it is one thing to produce a DIY kit, and quite another to implement it in practice. There may be a law of diminishing returns at work; the more lavish the toolkit, the least effective it may prove to be!  This is not just because public servants often baulk at the sight of glossy in-house extravagance. It is because a Toolkit has to strike a balance between two conflicting pressures.

The pressure to inform and educate inclines Toolkit authors to err on the side of being comprehensive. There is always another consultation technique that should be mentioned – and Here’s this brilliant case study that might be useful to 10% of the intended audience. Going down this path makes for comprehensive – if not always comprehensible guidance.

But the other pressure is towards controlling and co-ordinating. Here the emphasis is on providing staff with sufficient latitude to meet very specific requirements that may arise in some departmental consultations – whilst maintaining very strict adherence to overall standards and methods. Here the Toolkit predominantly plays a process-support role, and is the instrument of a Consultation Board or Steering Group charged with improving co-ordination and tackling the growing affliction of consultation fatigue among stakeholders. Not all Toolkits are clear about the role they intend to play – or the balance they wish to strike between these pressures. Some are standalone one-off projects written by a long-gone enthusiast; their value must be doubtful. But others are a constantly-updated mine of useful information supplementing – and not replacing the genuine article – which is training. Ultimately consultation will only be undertaken professionally if the staff involved are properly trained; producing a Toolkit alone is not enough.

Trigger points

  • Look carefully at Best Practice Toolkits – Institute members will be given a list of examples soon!
  • Obtain external advice on Toolkit content so that you have an effective benchmark
  • Consult its users to see if it meets their requirements!
  • If your Toolkit is over two years old – it may be time for a re-build.

This is the 17th Tuesday Topic; a full list of subjects covered is available for Institute members and is a valuable resource covering so many aspects of consultation and engagement

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