Thanks for the Memories

Posted on 29th March, 2023


This is Blog No 21


Reflections on an office that became the beating heart of best practice public and stakeholder consultations

I had a bitter/sweet moment this week. The Consultation Institute which I founded with colleagues almost 20 years ago is moving office, having, since 2009 occupied a ‘Centre of Excellence’ at Baystrait House, Biggleswade in Bedfordshire.


Its role has changed over the years. It was originally developed as a Training Centre, and on my calculation 2,000+ public engagement professionals attended courses on every conceivable aspect of the activity. That was before the emphasis changed to e-learning, in-house training on clients’ own premises and the growth of quality assurance and other helpful services for the profession.


They came from far and wide.


On one day, we hosted Legislative secretaries from the regional Parliaments (yes, this is true) of Chinese provinces, each one, on average, twice the population of the UK.


More typically, an average course would have seen a couple of people from a central Government department, a few from NHS Hospital Trusts or Clinical Commissioning Groups, someone from a Planning Consultancy and a clutch of local government officers from all over the UK. Being 50 yards from a train station meant that most came by public transport. A Newcastle-based trainee would get up early, catch a 6.00am train and be sipping our coffee well before 10.00am!

This office became a crucible for developing the thinking around best practice consultation. We tried to move from simplistic, tokenistic notions of ‘listening’ to the more constructive use of formal dialogue as an input to better decision-making, recognising that these processes are very demanding, sometimes expensive, and easy to attack.


Experienced Associates and staff spent hours in this office arguing over and mulling over concepts, terminology, and case studies - and finding ways to disseminate good advice to hundreds of public bodies. We gathered thousands of documents – consultation papers, impact assessments, options appraisals, feedback reports, toolkits, and the rest. We annotated Government White papers, National Audit Office investigations, Parliamentary Select Committees and, of course High Court judgments. When they mostly went online, we found other ways to keep abreast of key developments. Going through dozens of box-files last weekend made me realise how much has been absorbed and passed on to so many others.


Ultimately, however, the physical bricks and mortar of any building are only hosts to the people and know-how that are nurtured within its walls. That Biggleswade office – as the Institute takes its leave – is more a symbol for what has been achieved. A lot of hard work by dedicated staff, for sure. But also, the realisation that it is still largely unfinished business. Public consultation is still often done badly, the Politics of Consultation is still seldom appreciated, and a better regulatory framework is needed, to reduce the dependence upon expensive, time-consuming, and unpredictable legal actions in the Courts.


We once delivered a suite of training courses built around a mythical town called ‘Bloombridge’; management games to illustrate the problems and solutions of public engagement for Councils and other public bodies. There were Institute members that had ‘been to Bloombridge’ so often that we considered buying T-shirts with that message.


Today, I’m reflecting that were we to have a ‘I went to Biggleswade’ T-shirt, there would be hundreds of professionals from the fields of public policy-making, communications, engagement, and many other disciplines who might attest to the value of being trained and supported by the Consultation Institute.


As Corey Smalley and his team get accustomed to their new home near Cambridge, I am personally grateful to all those who helped either in Bedfordshire or beyond and whose ideas and best practice will provide an inspiration to continue this work for years to come.


In the meantime, look out for next week’s ConsultationGuRU blog …

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A typically elegant and classy reminder of what has been achieved over almost two decades of focused activity in Biggleswade.