Public consultation is more than decision makers giving people the chance to have their say. Isn’t it?

What’s the problem?

If you Google public consultation or search for it on Twitter you’ll probably find that the public are constantly being asked by decision makers to have their say or #HaveYourSay.

On the surface of it this sounds like a perfectly legitimate call to action; ‘Read our proposals and tell us what you think’.

However, if you interrogate this approach you’ll soon realise that it misrepresents the point of consultation i.e. to find out what people think (or maybe even feel) to make better decisions.

Moreover, it creates the impression that consultation is just about inviting people to comment on a set of fixed proposals, and hopefully get their way, raising expectations and creating reputation and legal problems for decision makers. And when more and more consultation takes place online there is a financial incentive for decision makers to chuck their proposals on the Internet and harvest as many responses as possible, regardless of the quality.

What should we do about it?

Instead, best practice, consultation should be recognised more as a window of opportunity for decision makers to involve people in a meaningful dialogue.  A process of using a range of mechanisms to:

  • Test the detail of their proposals
  • Learn from other experts, citizens or customers
  • Involve people in the complexity of their problem
  • Find out if they are wrong and why
  • Understand the popularity of their ideas
  • Create forums for sharing ideas and learning from each other

And by doing so be far more likely to generate responses that can be given conscientious consideration (Gunning four) and give people the confidence that final decisions have not been pre-determined (Gunning one).  This will probably require adequate time (Gunning three) and require information to be provided in a way that people can give proposals intelligent consideration (Gunning two).

In practice, this means different things should happen during the consultation window, above and beyond just asking people to fill out a survey (probably online).  Depending on the scope and impact of the decision, alternative consultation methods should be deployed like:

  • A mini-public
  • Focus groups
  • A citizen jury
  • Deliberative events
  • Stakeholder workshops
  • Bespoke market testing/social research
  • Deliberative opinion polls
  • Social media mediation
  • One to one in-depth interviews

And of course, still inviting people to have their say, or #HaveYourSay.

Critically, how we do this online must now be given greater consideration.  Too much online consultation involves nothing more than an online questionnaire, often open to manipulation and disruption from disgruntled stakeholders, coupled with unproductive arguments on social media.  More thought needs to be given to replacing or replicating the above (consultation methods) with their online equivalents.

Why bother?

Difficult decisions require more than just allowing people to have their say. The pay-off from putting more effort into the dialogue methods comes in the form of:

  • Reputation management – the decision maker demonstrates a genuine desire to be influenced
  • Legal risks – it is clear the decision maker has not already made up their mind and they have generated better intelligence to enable responses to be given conscientious consideration
  • Public empathy – people are more likely to empathise with the role of decision makers dealing with complex policy decisions
  • More engaged public – collectively decision makers create more engaged citizens (the benefits of which are well researched).
  • Better decisions – speaks for itself, the holy grail of public consultation

What’s your view? What does too much public consultation look like? Does public consultation take away authority from decision makers? Share your views by emailing The Consultation Movement at: theconsultationmovement@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Wednesday 20 September 2017 on the Consultation Institute. The Consultation Movement cannot confirm the accuracy of this story or confirm that it presents a balanced view. If you feel this is inaccurate we would welcome your perspective and evidence that this is the case.

 

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