Consultation and Campaigns – what exactly is the relationship?

Posted on 18th February, 2023

This is Blog No 15


Ostensibly, they are quite different processes.


Consultation is when decision-makers seek the views of stakeholders before taking a decision. Campaigning is normally either to secure a decision or maybe to overturn a decision.

Typically, they are undertaken by very different kinds of people. Organisations needing to consult require meticulous bureaucratic (in the best, not the worst sense) managers able to act with an open mind. Campaigners are very different. They are believers; convinced of their cause and energetic in pursuit of their goals. For them, the ends justify the means. Chalk and cheese! In part, it explains why consultors frequently find it difficult to handle the behaviour of campaigning consultees during a consultation!  


Campaigning is, of course, the lifeblood of a free democracy. On any day in the UK, a thousand or more campaigns are initiated. Many of these are intensely local; well below the radar and often no more than residents in a community getting together and agreeing to act in concert - to press for a pedestrian crossing, to demand a cycleway, to stop the closure of a GP surgery or object to a new housing development. At the other extreme, national campaigns range from nationwide strikes by trades unions to high-profile long-term movements to support or prevent assisted dying, strengthen or weaken animal welfare regulations or boycott this or that Company.


Money is seldom the constraint. When people feel strongly, the money is found and today there are digital platforms to help crowdfund campaigns that need large sums.

So, what exactly is the relationship with consultation?


Here are a four points to ponder.

  1. Campaigning for something is often about getting an issue on the agenda. It is about awareness-raising, marketing an idea or a cause. On occasions, this can be a numbers game, so petitions feature prominently. But at other times, the quality of support matters more than the quantity. Hence for some causes, celebrity endorsements matter.

       However, few causes are so self-evident that they require absolutely no discussion. Normally, campaigns

       need to explain their rationale, explore the context of their demands, outline the benefits and handle

       objections. Smart campaigners also realise that the way to secure maximum commitment is to provide

       ample opportunity for supporters to influence the campaign. They engage fully – and ideally consult their

       members or supporters at regular intervals.


       For large-scale or nationwide campaigns, or for controversial issues needing extensive discussion, a

       legitimate strategy is to seek a formal consultation – again to publicise the issue and to legitimise the

       debate. Campaigners need to win the argument in the public forum of a consultation.

  1. Campaigning against something involves a different dynamic. Either a decision has been taken , or it is imminent. There are often twin lines of attack. One is substantive – on the substance of the issue. Campaigners will argue that the decision is not needed, is wrong in principle, will have undesirable consequences or just cost too much. This is usually the heart of the objection.

       But there is also the procedural line of argument. The process was wrong. Decision-makers failed to give

       themselves the opportunity to listen to the counter-arguments. Had there been adequate consultation?

       Had it been fair? Were the right voices heard? Were consultees told the truth? Were they given enough

       time? And, critically, is there evidence that consultee views were given appropriate consideration?


       It is truly amazing how few public consultations withstand serious scrutiny. Cutting corners is endemic, but

       campaigners are rarely able to exploit this unless they recruit specialist advisers or pay for expensive

       lawyers and seek a judicial review.

  1. For consultor organisations, the key to success lies in doing the homework and identifying those likely to be affected well beforehand. Techniques like stakeholder mapping sound simple but are, in reality, complex for they oblige those planning a consultation to make provisional impact assessments – often a technical challenge that many leave too late. The mapping process itself is therapeutic, for it often reveals how little decision-makers know about those whose lives or interests they are about to affect.

       For contentious decisions, a well-prepared consultor organisation should have already identified relevant

       pressure groups and known campaign bodies. It should already be using a state-of-the-art stakeholder

       management system, gathering information about their status, their representativeness, and their

       published statements. Ideally, there will have been some pre-consultation dialogue to sound them out

       over the scope of the forthcoming consultation, the information needed to enable intelligent consideration

       and to identify the key issues around which the debate should focus.


       Mature management of these processes yields enormous benefits.

       Both consultors and campaigners open up lines of communications early enough and before positions

       become too entrenched. They may have serious disagreements, but experienced public affairs

       professionals know that relationships matter and preparing for a consultation is moment in time when

       everyone gains by a sensible degree of engagement.

  1. The world is becoming more consultative, not less. But the methodologies are changing and whilst the old-style, traditional ‘document with questions’ is still alive and kicking, the world of digital engagement provides newer and faster ways of involving both the general public and specialist technocrats alike. It can even encourage them to talk to each other!

       Campaigners are sometimes ahead of the game in securing new ways of exerting influence, and many a

       local authority, many a regulator and even Government departments have been caught on the back foot.

       Environmental campaigners have secured Citizens Assemblies to demonstrate how widely their

       aspirations are supported. Those seeking changes to the law (as in Martyn’s law etc) have illustrated the

       potency of social media and its power to influence.


      In truth, the days of decision-making without some form of evidence-gathering and relying on blind belief or

      doctrinaire ideology – despite some recent aberrations – are coming to an end.

My conclusion is that there is now a symbiotic relationship between policy-makers and campaigners. In a sense they need each other, and public consultation and engagement are conduits for that relationship to work well.


I’m not sure if policy teams in central government, local authorities, regulators, and the myriad other decision-making bodies yet understand this fully. I’m not even sure any of us do, because technology is a key and unpredictable driver; it’s changing the ground rules, and the age of more democratic and inclusive public engagement is only starting. Neither is the public affairs industry yet sure it can manage without the traditional ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you know’ culture.


What they both need is a better understanding of consultation and the ways to make the best use of it.


Watch this space!


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