Toolkits – how useful are they?
Not a week goes by without someone asking us if we know of some good examples of a consultation toolkit. Now it is true that there are a lot of good toolkits available but it would be wise to not go toolkit-by-default too soon.
Wanting to adopt a common standard consultation practice is admirable and understandable, as many public bodies struggle staying financially afloat, but you need to make sure that your consultation and engagement staff are professionally trained and have the right skills and knowledge to steer you through a controversial, lengthy and expensive consultation exercise. We see it all over the UK; well experienced civil servants, who are experts in their fields, having to work with limited resources, or even worse, facing the threat of restructure. Enter the toolkit!
One of the challenges of toolkits is striking a balance between two conflicting pressures. One is scale and the other is the ease of use. If you build something concise and easy to access, people will use it but will often fail to find the answers they want. But if you build a large, truly comprehensive toolkit, fewer people use it. This dilemma has been a difficulty for many.
Producing a consultation toolkit should not replace but rather complement your staff training. Building solely on your toolkit you run the risk of not knowing how to handle specific problems in your consultation exercise that do not feature in your toolkit. A toolkit is not the magic solution to all of your problems, but it is part of the solution. So bear in mind that before embarking on building a toolkit of your own, consult the users of it to see if it meets their requirements.
We, of course, have to declare an interest. tCI offers a wide variety of training courses on almost every single aspect of public consultation and we have seen how valuable these courses have proven to be for delegates as they share best– and bad practices with their peers in an informal setting. Public bodies throughout the UK are facing one financial setback after another so resorting to consultation toolkits seems like a smart investment but, in the long term, might turn out to have accomplished the opposite; the simplification of what is an incredibly delicate and intricate consultation process, which in reality needs a custom-built approach, benefiting both consultors and consultees.