News and Comment

What do we want? Consultation! When do we want it? Now!

Friday 18 October 2013

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The Football Association was criticised recently for failing to consult before suggesting that Tottenham Hotspur fans might be prosecuted if they continued to chant a controversial word. Around the same time Everton supporters complained en masse that they hadn’t been consulted properly about a change made to the team’s crest. What do these episodes tell us about the profile of consultation and engagement in British society?

Football has always inspired strong emotions, not surprising for an activity at the heart of British culture. The game’s history is littered with examples of fans challenging the sport’s decision-makers. Traditionally this manifested itself in crowd’s protesting in car parks or threatening to boycott matches. However, as with the recent examples at Tottenham and Everton, the word ‘consultation’ has entered the fray.

Tottenham fans have long referred to themselves as ‘Yids’ a derivation of the word Yiddish and a derogatory term for Jewish people. Historically, Tottenham and its surrounding areas have been home to a large Jewish population, which led to anti-Semitic abuse from some supporters of other clubs. In an effort to nullify this abuse Tottenham fans began using the word “Yid” themselves, in their eyes re-appropriating the racial epithet. However, many still feel the term is offensive regardless of who uses it and within what context. The comedian David Baddiel is one high profile commentator who takes this view stating arguing that: “The only possible reason why a culture that has tried to dismiss other race-hate words to the margins of language would consider it acceptable is if the racism of which it is a part is somehow less offensive, somehow less significant, than other racisms”. Before Tottenham’s last game earlier this month the FA and the Metropolitan Police warned both sets of supporters that anybody caught using the word within the stadium might be prosecuted. This angered many Tottenham fans who felt banning the term impinged upon the club’s sense of identity and led to the Chair of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust to respond by saying “the FA have gone out on a limb by issuing this statement without proper consultation with the club or the fans.”

Elsewhere, Everton FC redesigned their badge this summer – a change that met with significant dissatisfaction from the club’s supporters. Many fans didn’t approve of the new design and over 20,000 fans signed a petition calling for the change to be revoked. The situation was exacerbated when the club attempted to defend their choice by stating that the decision had involved extensive consultation with fans, something the fan’s themselves disputed. The club quickly backed down, and announced that a fan vote would take place to choose a new design. ‘Our Chairman had demanded widespread consultation and we stopped short of that. We talked to our Fans’ Forum, our commercial partners and our experienced staff around the Club. That was not enough.’ a club spokesperson said.

These two examples each illustrate different concerns related to consultation. At Tottenham, the issue was around the legitimacy of legislation that is not seen to take into consideration the views of all parties involved. At Everton it was about process and challenging what was considered to be an unsatisfactory approach. However, together they illustrate one key point; consultation has become increasingly embedded within public consciousness, an accepted and well regarded part of decision-making processes. From the Everton and Tottenham examples the implicit message is clear: these decisions were ‘bad’ and did not carry popular legitimacy because the decision-making process did not consider the views of all involved.

Increasingly people not only feel that they should be consulted on issues that are important to them, but they also are knowledgeable enough about consultation to understand the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ consultation. This demonstrates a challenge to policy makers across society. Consultations are now almost the ‘norm’, no longer is offering a consultation of itself laudable. It’s important to match people’s rising expectations, and this means to thinking more carefully than ever about the process that’s used and ensuring it is carried out with integrity and transparency. A bad consultation is as good as no consultation, and people will see through any attempt to mislead them.

As an industry we have succeeded in raising the profile of consultation, and winning public support for its use. Yet in so doing we have also created a consultation savvy public, who, quite rightly, will not be placated with tick box exercises or lip-service methods. Now we must make sure we meet the expectations we helped create.

Mark Denley is a Project Coordinator at Dialogue by Design, part of the OPM Group.