Twenty Years of Consultation - INTRODUCTION

Posted on 7th July, 2023

It’s too obvious a cliche to point out that the world has changed since we began taking an active interest in public and stakeholder consultation. But the twentieth anniversary of our establishment of The Consultation Institute seems a suitable moment to reflect upon what has happened to public engagement and consultation in the UK since 2003.     

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During two decades of extraordinary political and social upheavals, the practice of consultation has been a relatively stable feature of public administration. While other ideas and innovations have emerged, many fads have come and gone, leaving the boringly-bureaucratic, unexciting and in many ways, flawed, process of consultation largely as it was.

 

As a vehicle for gathering views and opinions in order to influence decisions, this particular concept motors on as if little has changed. But under the bonnet, the engine works a little differently. It probably carries less baggage but more people can ride, and it has attracted interesting fellow-travellers. It can change gear more smoothly and hold the road better. Adhesion to the direction of travel is stronger, and it can sometimes get to its destination faster than other forms of conveyance. Unlike others, it has not received a high-profile facelift, just steady gradual improvements and a massive investment in driver training.

 

We are writing a series of retrospectives – to try to capture the essence of the story; to try to distinguish important improvements and learn lessons from the frequent bumps in the road.

 

If you are into public engagement, fasten your seatbelts and follow the story. Later Reflections will be published free to all on the Consultation GuRU mailing list. 

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Origins

 

In 2003, three men walk into a bar                                    

 

An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Welshman!

 

The Englishman – Howard Kendall was a sceptic; The Irishman, Quintin Oliver was idealistic but cautious. And the Welshman wouldn’t stop talking!

 

“Elizabeth Gammell and I” he said, “want to set up a body to focus on public consultations.”

He explained how, since ending their business on providing data for Parliamentary lobbyists, they had realised how extensive was the practice of asking the public – and stakeholders – what they thought.

 

“It’s the process of lobbying in reverse”, he claimed. “Instead of responding to pressure from academics, campaigners, think tanks, and everyone else who lobbied, there are decision-makers now taking the initiative and seeking input before decisions are taken.”

 

Elizabeth had been to see a local authority and discovered there was a specialist Public Consultation Officer working directly for the Chief Executive. Rhion had found a whole team in another Council. It seemed there were bits of legislation all over the place – some dating back to the 1950s. Town Planners were doing it. The NHS kept talking about it. The Audit Commission (historical note – they regulated much of local government) were banging on about it. And Government Civil Servants had even produced a Code of Practice.

Quintin said there was so much of it in Northern Ireland that everyone was complaining about consultation fatigue. Since the Peace Process, they had Section 75 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.

“What’s Section 75?” asked Howard.

 

We learnt how public bodies in Northern Ireland now needed to promote equality of opportunity between people and communities regardless of their religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age and so forth. Quintin had spent his life campaigning for such matters, and now consultation had become a useful way to assess the risk that policies and activities of public bodies might exacerbate inequalities.

But shouldn’t everyone do that anyway?” said Howard, who had successfully run an Institute on customer service, but was not deeply immersed in politics.

 

It led to a long debate. Within a couple of hours, we agreed to talk to colleagues to test Rhion and Elizabeth’s hypothesis that consultation wasn’t just a Northern Ireland preoccupation. We claimed it was a widespread, and mainly hidden activity undertaken by an enthusiastic cadre of officers largely doing their own thing, and generally, using market research methodologies.

 

We went to see Ben Page, of MORI, then a leading UK specialist public opinion pollster. He confirmed the sheer size of the survey industry – and yes, he thought we might need some form of best practice body. A top NHS boss encouraged us saying she was fed up with everyone spending months building their own Toolkits. Someone said that Transport for London had produced a 200 page tome which effectively stopped them from even moving a bus stop!

 

It was left to Howard who had never been a New Labour fan to ask the critical question.

“Isn’t this consultation lark … “ he calmly enquired “just a passing Blair/Brown fad? Will it still be with us in five years’ time?”

 

 

What happened ..

 

Twenty years later, we know the answer.

 

We learnt that there were, indeed, a large number of professionals whose work included planning, designing, and running consultations. We learnt that they had relied exclusively on traditional market research methodologies and were well versed in qualitative and quantitative survey techniques, focus groups and some deliberative events.

 

Unfortunately, no one had helped them think through what was different about public and stakeholder consultation. The vocabulary was confused. Expectations were low, and in some cases, Sherry Arnstein‘s 1960s, castigation of consultation as tokenistic seemed all too true.

 

But we also discovered some brilliant, meaningful dialogues where decisions had been greatly improved as a result of listening to those likely to be affected. Once we’d popularised the term we found consultees everywhere. Companies, pressure groups, charities and individuals – in fact everyone. We are ALL consultees – just not sure whether to take seriously the exercise to which we are invited to respond.

 

Only with two decades experience are we now able to see that the mechanics of consultations were one thing, but the practical politics were quite another.

 

In 2008, Elizabeth Gammell and I wrote The Art  of Consultation. By then five years of the Institute had taught us where people were surefooted and knowledgeable. And where it was all rather hazy. We were able to clarify what works, fill in the gaps and promote best practice.

 

it took another 10 years to publish The Politics of Consultation, and arguably we took too long to recognise that the more intractable problems lay not in the processes, but with the purposes to which they were put.

 

The answer to Howard‘s question seems to be that consultation was not the invention of the 1997–2010 Labour administration but had been a constant in public administration for much longer. In fact, the critical legal case that lay the framework for the Law of Consultation had, in fact, occurred in 1985! It just happens that when we began to poke the sleeping giant of consultation in 2003, few if any practitioners had heard of the Gunning Principles. A decade or more of training, and the rules of the game became widely appreciated.

 

What emerged was a better understanding of the benefits of consultation, and a clearer view of when its full legally-enforceable rigour was needed; in contrast, the looser, less prescriptive forms of community engagement are very effective but perform different functions.

 

If only it were that simple.

 

Unfortunately, Parliament has, for decades, legislated for consultation to occur without sufficient regard to the context within which the requirement is placed. Sometimes the language is just sloppy. For years, the NHS has struggled with duties to ‘engage or consult’ for service changes without anyone ever successfully defining what was meant.

 

Inevitably we found ourselves with an overflowing library of Guidance, often contradictory. Sometimes they feel designed more to protect the authors from top-down criticism and less to help the audiences. Ditto in planning, housing, transport, social care and elsewhere. No wonder there is an active consultancy industry, helping public bodies through this labyrinth of exhortation. Some consultants, including The Consultation Institute itself, are excellent and provide valuable assistance, especially for public bodies who have suffered headcount reductions as organisations de-layer their management structures.

 

The response was predictable. Organisations needing to make rapid changes, persuaded themselves that consultation was, in any case ‘old hat’. They claimed there were better ways to engage people. And they were often right. The last 20 years has seen the proliferation of excellent public engagement innovations, far more accessible to communities and individuals.

 

But their application is uneven. Too many rely either - at one end of the spectrum - on  designing representative samples (as with Citizens Assemblies) or - on the other end on ways to decide ‘who is in the room’ (as in co-production). And, to date, at any rate, there is no effective legal redress if someone thinks the process is unfair.

 

Today, the typology of public engagement is more diverse. Credible ways have been found to mobilise public and stakeholder opinions and to contribute to better informed decision-making. Social media is a terrific stimulator of public participation, but by now its disadvantages are manifest to all. AI looms around us, but, in truth, it is not entirely new. It’s potential for good in public engagement has obviously to be weighed against the likelihood of misuse, and the spectre of misinformation remains around us all.

 

The clear divide seems to be between dialogues that are intended to act as a replacement or enhancement of representative democracy, and those like consultation that acknowledges that power exists where it currently sits.

 

Of course, these things evolve. For western democracies, there are real challenges. Populism, Covid, Climate change and standard of living issues destabilised many countries. Crises of confidence in the democratic institutions of the USA and the UK have also led to a yearning for replacements to Parliamentary style representative democracy. Hence the growing appeal of Citizens assemblies and their equivalents

 

Whilst this ‘big stuff’ politics happens, day-to-day, the routine tasks of policy-making and local decision-making continue. And it is for the tried-and-tested, even if imperfect practice of consultation, that organisations continue to turn.

 

Despite all its undoubted faults, consultation has not disappeared with the departure of Messrs Blair and Brown. It remains the most visible form of public involvement in decision-making in the UK

 

To understand why and to help tackle the agenda for improvement, it is time to take stock and ask some difficult questions.

 

Reflections

 

Elizabeth Gammell and I (writes Rhion) come from a particular perspective – with its advantages and drawbacks. We are not working practitioners – we are, hopefully, informed observers of the consultation scene.

 

Together, over 15 years, we delivered on our calculations, over 450 one-day events – mostly training courses but also a variety of Seminars and Workshops. We estimate that up to 4,000 people met us and shared experiences with us  - both good and bad. We rejoiced in their successes and sought to empathise with their frustrations. To this day, many remain as members of the Consultation Institute; many others are in regular contact through the ConsultationGuRU website.

 

We have approached those whom we have known for years, to discuss what has changed over the years. Many have reinforced the conclusions we have formed ourselves, But others have brought us fresh insights that are immensely valuable in reviewing the position twenty years after.

 

In Reflection OneTHE RESILIENCE of CONSULTATION, we go back to look at the reservations and objections that led many to feel that consultation was an inadequate form of public involvement. To what extent are those still valid? Or have things changed with  improvements that lessen their impact?

 

Reflections Two and Three explore one of the most visible changes that have occurred in recent years – which is the development of the LAW OF CONSULTATION. We look at the way in which various items of legislation Freedom of Information to Planning legislation have shaped the environment within which public consultations are undertaken. We consider the way in which Judges have defined and moulded the law through a succession of important judgments but also discuss the consequences of our reliance upon Judicial Review as the main way to challenge the fairness of a consultation.

 

In Reflection Four, we address one of the main objectives of a modern consultation - widening the range of voices heard by decision-makers. Twenty years ago, the term ‘hard to reach’ was in common use. We worked hard to secure its replacement by ’seldom heard’ – itself a less-than-perfect alternative. It is time to reflect upon the contribution consultation makes to the EQUALITIES AGENDA.

 

Reflection Five looks at important changes to the timelines of consultation – and the welcome change of emphasis from the ‘dialogue phase’ to what we called PRE-CONSULTATION. It was clear that a consultation was only as good as the preparatory work which led to it. But what difference has this made?

 

Reflection Six and Seven look specifically at the role that consultation is playing – and should in future play in the challenges of our time – notably HEALTH AND WELLBEING and the response to CLIMATE CHANGE. Is it being used as a rubber-stamp or we creatively harnessing the contribution of communities and civic society to help solve problems.

 

Finally in Reflection Eight, we examine the so-called democratic deficit and what consultation can do to boost and supplement REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY. It may involve a degree of greater regulation of Government-initiated consultations, but most importantly, we consider the extent to which a consultative culture can be encouraged in the years ahead.

 

We are still listening to colleagues and practitioners and this, admittedly crude sub-division of interlocking agenda items may change. We are also encountering great new ideas and suggestions of other aspects that might warrant treatment with a ‘twenty year’ perspective.

 

In the meantime, join us by contributing your thoughts and analysis at consultationguruuk@gmail.com

Rhion H Jones LL.B

Elizabeth Gammell

 

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