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What consultation should I salvage?

So you work for a local authority? Or any public body with an extensive range of public or stakeholder consultations it manages on an almost daily basis.

Today…you may even be working from home!

Your colleagues in the communications team are super-busy encouraging better hand-washing, social distancing and self-isolation. Dozens of others are trying to organise the excellent response for volunteers. Good luck!

But one of your headaches is to figure out what to do with the public consultations that might have been scheduled in the coming weeks, and, which, by common consent, probably should not proceed. The question is. Are some of them more important than others?

There are some obvious factors you might consider.

  • How many people does the issue affect?
  • Do the proposals have serious implications?
  • Will some people be seriously disadvantaged?
  • Are there statutory or other legal requirements to consult?
  • Will key stakeholders feel alienated?
  • Will there be a loss of reputation?

But supposing you had five projects – all of whom scored highly on such factors. And supposing there is a sheer impossibility of doing more than one because there is only you, and there are no other resources. Which do you choose?

It led us back to first principles as to why we consult in the first place. There are so many valid answers. Years ago, when the Institute started, in our training courses, we used a checklist from Cheltenham Council containing about fifteen reasons why we consult. And they were all valid.  So can there ever be one over-riding criterion? Something that could prove a useful yardstick for the manager faced with the dilemma of which one to salvage from the growing list of abandoned projects.

Well here is a suggestion.

Of all the reasons to consult, the best is – to arrive at better decisions. In other words,  choose the consultation where the decision is most likely to become better by virtue of other views having been obtained. Unlike many consultations where consultee views are mostly predictable, and where there is a limited likelihood of change to proposals, there are clear circumstances where having a consultation will make a difference. Here are just three scenarios of when this may apply:

  • When decision-makers are dealing with a subject with which they are unfamiliar. Groping around in relative ignorance is dangerous and needs the advice of those who may know more than you do!
  • When there is a choice between evenly-matched options and where public opinion can sway the balance of the argument
  • Where decision-makers are genuinely unsure what to do. Maybe when every course of action seems unpalatable or unpopular and where the views of others can provide a signpost to a least worst

There are many other scenarios of course and local knowledge or domain knowledge is certainly a factor. Experienced consultation managers will know from previous history or from a sound understanding of the local socio-political dynamic, where consultation has made a difference in the past.

Are you anywhere nearer solving the puzzle?

The truth is that the temptation will be to select the exercise that is easiest to manage. Or maybe the one that lends itself to digital dialogue at this time of reduced face-to-face contact. Those may well be the most popular answers.

But the right answer is to run the consultation that is most likely to make a difference!

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’.

Read more about Rhion

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