News and Comment

House of Lords’ conclusions reflect a wider concern about the future of consultations

Wednesday 23 January 2013

They are just one in a plethora of tools used by the public sector to ensure their services are ‘public-centred’; but consultations are probably alone in their potential to affect Government policy on matters of the greatest importance.

Consultation Principles image

It should perhaps then come as little surprise then that the Government has taken steps to formally define how it intends to engage the public in future decision making.

At every level, from national: where data is being opened up as part of the transparency agenda for citizen scrutiny, to local: where new mechanisms for grassroots engagement, such as the establishment of Healthwatch – there is a change afoot in the nature of public engagement and consultation

And all of these changes are underpinned by a statutory set of principals that will determine how the manner in which the state seeks the views of its citizens: the Code of Practice on Consultation.

Consultations – whether on specific government policies, (such as gay marriage), or on significant infrastructure projects, (such as CrossRail), will remain a central strand of engagement activity. But consultations can vary in effectiveness and quality. They can be well designed, or they can ask the wrong questions, in the wrong way. Often, if they are to succeed in engaging vulnerable people, they need to incorporate a range of engagement methods, including face-to-face exchanges and outreach. Although the lure of internet-based engagement strategies is bound to be strong – due to both convenience and cost – relying on online consultations alone might not be sufficient to get the views of a wide and varied  range of respondents .

After all, it goes without saying that consultations need, at the very least, more than one respondent – a total which is sadly not always met! But more seriously, response rates can often be very low, even for policies that are of critical importance to the way our public services are reformed and increasing the number of consultation respondents should be a priority of any government.

In a recent report the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Committee raised serious concerns about Government consultations, calling for greater transparency and improved approaches to engaging hard-to-reach and vulnerable people. It stated that more needs to be done to ensure consultations are effective and provide a real opportunity for the engagement of stakeholders.

Of course as with every other area of Government, spending is a factor – and successful consultations do cost both time and money. They require skilled designers and analysts for example, to ensure that the required response rates and desired quality of evidence is achieved. But, just like everywhere else, efficiencies need to be found in the way we consult.

Online consultations can offer a way of keeping costs down and they provide an easy and engaging way for a lot of people to find out about specific proposals and to have their say. At Dialogue by Design (part of the OPM Group), we underpin our consultation websites with rigorous data handling, analysis and reporting. We’ve been doing this for more than decade now. We’re also very flexible: our consultation on behalf of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) attracted many more responses than anticipated and we were able to adapt quickly to respond to this. Our most recent consultation is for Anglian Water, who OPM and DbyD are working with on their engagement around Price Review 2014. One basic commitment we make is that our processes are auditable and transparent, which is an essential element of consultations in a democratic society.

As good as online consultation can be, it’s not likely that it is sufficiently wide-reaching to address the Lords’ concerns about engaging hard-to-reach groups. Often working alongside our colleagues at DbyD, OPM has advised many agencies on the best ways to engage vulnerable people, whether they are disabled, living in troubled families, or have low levels of confidence and literacy. Again a range of techniques need to be deployed, ranging from sophisticated profiling of the communities involved to face-to-face deliberative events and focus groups and video ethnography.

Overall we agree with the assertion by the House of Lords that consultations are important, and that they need to be improved if a more citizen-focused society is to be created. And, while not every consultation will require the depth of engagement we describe above, it is important that most meet the basic requirements of transparency and make as many efforts as possible to increase response rates and reach those who are most disengaged from the political process.

Over the next few days we will be thinking about other issues which affect how the public sector obtains the views of all people, including how we can use user-led organisations to help reach vulnerable communities, and the techniques required to conduct consultations on controversial and complex topics.