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OPINION7 April 2014

Reserve your place?

Opinion

Should councils ask citizens to book their places at public consultations to avoid disappointments? Ian Nockolds considers the options.

But should booking be required, to avoid other criticisms of the consultation process? Take the example of Stafford Hospital, whose public consultation was branded a “shambles” last year because “hundreds” of people were denied entry to a meeting. Press reports indicated that “more than 700 people were in the meeting at Stafford County Showground. But hundreds more were refused entry as bosses said it would be unsafe to let them in”.

The Special Administrators of the local NHS Trust were obviously anticipating a high turnout, and choose the venue as it was the “largest available in the area”. It also arranged for screens to be placed in adjacent buildings, broadcasting the proceedings. But not knowing exactly how many people would attend this event meant that even the best laid plans counted for very little.

In austerity Britain public consultation has become an essential element of the democratic decision making process, engaging stakeholders with the tough choices councils have been required to make by consecutive Government Spending Reviews. Indeed, consultation is now enshrined in the legal process councils are required to undertake. Failure to adequately consult has already resulted in a number of local authorities being taken to judicial review. Yet there is a delicate balance to strike between doing the right thing to engage the public in the decision-making process and managing that process so that it doesn’t become the epitome of the inefficiencies it is seeking to address.

What’s the point of three facilitators spending an evening in an empty village hall, on the off-chance a coach load of consultees might turn up? See one person and you run the risk of being told your presence is nothing more than a waste of money, yet if hundreds turn up then you’re accused of orchestrating a “shambles”. Indeed, its not always about how many facilitators you have at an event, it’s a question of having the right ones. A recent consultation in North Devon was branded a “farce” because “there was no one of any importance there” from the local authority.

town hall meeting

“I think we might have over-catered…”

Our old friend, the Cabinet Office Code of Principles, tells us that “consideration should be given to more informal forms of consultation that may be appropriate – for example, email or web-based forums, public meetings, working groups, focus groups, and surveys – rather than always reverting to a written consultation. Policy-makers should avoid disproportionate cost”. So how do we use this box of tricks to deliver a consultation that achieves this?

Public meetings, the traditional forum for public debate, are the obvious option. As long as the hall isn’t too small, they provide the flexibility that allows for variable public interest. However, public meetings run the very real risk of portraying an exercise as simply ‘going through the motions’. Even with a strong chair, public meetings can descend into a political bear pit, where grandstanding sensationalises and misinforms the debate. Notwithstanding their theatrical value, these meetings have the potential to add no new insight to the consultation process. At their worst they can significantly undermine public confidence in a process, leaving stakeholders confused and concerned about what the future might hold.

In my most recent projects I’ve challenged the value the traditional public meeting can bring, particularly when their previous use has proven to add no new insight into the decision making process. It’s easy for protagonists on both sides of a debate to cling doggedly to their rhetoric, rather than using an open forum to explore new ideas and reflect upon the unintended consequences of their actions.

Instead, the small group format generates the sort of consultation environment typically enjoyed in a GP’s surgery, or at a school Parents Evening. This more intimate engagement provides stakeholders with the privacy to raise questions and explore their own concerns, making the consultation experience a far more personal one.

However, such an approach is not without its limitations, mainly those of time and space. As with the GP’s surgery, sessions become time-critical when demand is high. One potential remedy for this is the use of multiple facilitators. Yet, the number of facilitators will ultimately be defined by the amount of useful space available.

This is what makes booking the necessary evil. Whilst this approach is criticised as being anything other than open, it enables resources to be managed efficiently, providing participants with a guaranteed opportunity to engage. Consultations should be open to everybody and I would never turn anyone away from a consultation who hadn’t booked, but their opportunity to engage would have to be based on a first come, first served approach.

It’s a fact of life that complaining about consultation processes has become a proxy for complaining about the consultation subjects themselves. The Stafford Hospital “shambles” was as much about the fear of loosing health services as it was about the number of seats in a venue. The North Devon “farce” was as much about the fear of losing a day centre as it was about the seniority of council staff at the consultation event. Far from ‘avoiding disappointment’, the concept of booking early is likely to generate yet another stick to beat practitioners with, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea.

As the Cabinet Office Consultation Principles establish the common sense approach to consultation, the MRS Code of Conduct establishes the rights of the respondent, central to which is the principle that reasonable precautions must be taken to ensure that respondents are not harmed or adversely affected. This is the principle we must uphold above all others.

So, when it comes to designing and implementing consultation programmes, integrity and common sense need to be our watch words. The key challenge for research and consultation practitioners is to ensure those elements are not lost from the process, in the face of ever-increasing public and legal scrutiny.

Ian Nockolds is a director of Cognisant Research

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