Consultation: Avoid the con’

The last few weeks I found myself on an estate facilitating a community consultation. It raised various challenges. Here are five insights:

1. Find the corporate memory

Here estate residents are frustrated at staff turnover in local authority departments. The churn of staff coming and goings generates an ‘institutional amnesia’ with new staff ‘forgetting’ decisions, key papers, documents, reports and findings from even recent consultations. Findings of previous consultations are ‘forgotten’. They forget they ever conducted consultations!

This is ‘institutional dementia’, where insight is lost, ignored or impossible to retrieve. This erodes confidence in local government and agency.

Dig around and find all the previous research and consultations you can. Bring it all together, on a website or at meetings. Find a way to summarise the research and recover the memory from previous studies.

2. Highlight uncoordinated plans 

Duplication happens all the time.  Councils commission, re-commission, inadvertently duplicating work going on in the office next door or down the corridor.

Competition between council departments hardly helps. This uncoordinated approach generates perceptions the local authority is unaware of work its doing.

Spot and challenge the lack of coordination and duplication. Highlight opportunities to collaborate between department and agency – finding ways to save cash.

3. Be clear it isn’t a stitch up

Residents talked about private contractors running consultations on behalf of the local authority. For residents, the contractors were ‘going through the motions’ – with no intentions of digging deep, finding reality and then producing recommendations informed by the findings. In fact the contractors and local authority had their plans.

The conflict of interest raises questions about the integrity of the consultation and the research findings. What is going on? What is the funders agenda?

Consultation is a great opportunity to promote the people, department and researchers – affirming the process and all those involved and invited to participate. It’s a moment to say options are open and this isn’t a stitch up. If you’re clear with the research funder the consultation isn’t a stitch up.

4. Find the Shops

You’d be surprised how much the ‘market place’, the centre of a community gets missed off conultations. Newsagents, grocers and adjacent bus stops have a big footfall.

I once surveyed an estate, inviting residents to return completed forms to the local supermarket, where the completed form became a £1 off discount coupon! The survey received a 38% return rate.

Your parade of shops is central to the community – get in there and spend time asking questions and listening to people.

5. Work with the funder on what comes next.

It’s important what happens to the findings once a consultation is completed. Consultation creates expectations amongst participants and disappointment and resentment when outcomes don’t turn out as anticipated.

How do you manage expectation?

Any confidence in an excellent consultation process turns to cynicism when the findings are forgotten, or the process is duplicated a week, month or year later. So, what’s the plan? It’s worth talking this through with the council department, agency or funder.

We could talk about using a local café as a base for people to find you. Or the importance of door to door, or consulting people outside of office hours and getting a feel for the estate early or late. More for next time!

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