Friday, February 14, 2014

Planning in citizen voice

The Coalition Government is currently looking at responses to its discussion document on the nationally significant infrastructure planning (NSIP) regime. The narrative around the review is that it’s needed not because the regime isn’t working, but because it could work better. The message is that the changes proposed are not radical, but aim to streamline and improve.

The review places some focus on consultation. The discussion document refers to complaints about the ‘onerous’ nature of statutory consultation and emphasises the importance of a ‘proportionate’ process – which would mean some ‘streamlining’ of the current process, it seems.

In the context of other changes – for example, to the JR system – it might be tempting to see these as weasel words: streamlining and proportionality could well be interpreted as attempts to reduce the opportunities for people affected – positively or negatively – by NSIPs to have their say and to have their voices heard.

This need not be the case, however. The reviews open up the possibility of thinking more creatively about engagement and consultation. Both refer to the value of early engagement and the NSIP review talks about the importance of genuine community engagement. Done well, early engagement provides an opportunity for dialogue that adds value and reduces consultation fatigue and cost (for all involved).

Last week I spoke about engagement at an NSIP masterclass, with my colleague Lucy. We focused on the value of deliberative approaches to engagement, particularly early on in the pre-application stage. Deliberative engagement is usually quite small scale and relatively high cost per person involved. So it could be seen as disproportionate: why would you spend that much money on so few people when you can run an online public consultation or do a leaflet drop at a much lower cost but with a chance of reaching a far greater number of people?

The answer to this is hinted at in another point made in the NSIP 2014 review discussion document: it is quality, not quantity that counts. Deliberative approaches provide an opportunity to do high quality engagement. Done well, they build relationships as well as providing opportunities for discussing complex and often technical issues. And they are great ways of engaging communities on complex topics, especially when the policy framework and decision-making take place at a national level while the impacts fall on particular local communities.  They’re also a useful approach to identifying common ground and ensuring that ongoing discussions focus on the remaining points of difference rather than going over old ground.

So: I want to understand ‘proportionate’ to mean engage early, engage well, and engage honestly. The balance in question is qualitative, not quantitative. One speaker at the NSIP masterclass pointed to the difference between good engagement and glossy PR. The latter, he noted, doesn’t go down well and is recognised for what it is. So the other thing to emphasise is that engagement is about good process: it’s not about selling a particular outcome. A deliberative approach is one of the best ways of conducting genuine early engagement, no matter who you want to talk to.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Affinity Water: Customer Deliberative Forums


Every five years water companies are required by the regulator Ofwat to take part in a Price Review process which determines the balance of investment, price and service packages water companies provide customers. Affinity Water, like all water companies in England, is required to submit a Business Plan as part of this process and ensure that customers are engaged in this process.

What we did

In July 2013 OPM hosted 4 deliberative forums for Affinity Water customers across Affinity Water’s region. The purpose of these events was to discuss the:

  1. Acceptability of the draft business plan: does the proposed plan achieve the right balance between the service people receive and the cost they pay?
  2. Outcome measures: do the proposed measures of success enable customers to judge Affinity Water’s performance?
  3. Style, content and language of the ‘Our Business Plan Consultation’ document.

Each event involved a cross section of 50 customers from the local area and were designed so that the majority of the discussion sessions were held in small groups, each supported by an OPM facilitator. Periodically, plenary sessions were held to feedback on the main points raised in the small group discussions.There were also 4 interactive voting sessions. At the start of each event every participants was provided with a remote control keypad which they could use to vote on questions throughout the day.

At several points during each event a senior staff member from Affinity Water gave a presentation. After each presentation, participants had a chance to discuss on their tables what they had heard. For the majority of the day participants were asked to discuss the following 4 customer ‘expectations’:

  1. Making sure our customers have enough water;
  2. Supplying high quality water you can trust;
  3. Minimising disruption to you and your community; and
  4.  Providing a value for money service.

For each of these expectations they were asked to discuss how they felt about Affinity Water’s proposed investment level in terms of what it would deliver against the amount it would add to their bills. They were also asked to contrast this with slower and faster pace investment levels.

For each expectation they were then asked to look at the proposed measures for assessing how well Affinity Water is performing against it. For each measure they were asked to discuss whether it was clear what the measure means, whether it would measure what it is intended to measure and whether they felt that any other measures would be helpful.

The final small group discussion today tasked participants with looking at the ‘Our Business Plan Consultation’ and commenting on: whether the language used is accessible; if any diagrams or photos used are helpful; if the report looks interesting; and whether they felt it was the right length or not.


The events were well received, with attendees giving consistently high quality feedback on the event facilitation and design. The results of the event were fed directly into the deliberations of the Affinity Water Senior Management and some of the findings, particularly on options for investment were taking into account in the final business plan.

You can read more about OPM and Affinity Water’s experience of engaging customers in the Price Review process in a joint article written for Utility Week. 


Monday, June 17, 2013

Extending the boundaries of public participation in policy making: the role of video

Over the last decade there has been a concerted effort across government to involve the public more meaningfully in policy development. This can especially be seen in areas such as science and technology, where there has been a clear break with the idea that these sorts of topics are too complex for public involvement and should left to the experts.

A good example of this is the launch of BIS-funded Sciencewise initiative, which has been tasked with developing deliberative practice around challenging topics that often involve steep learning curves and the need to grapple with thorny issues and dilemmas. They’ve rightly placed a great emphasis on the standards of dialogue pushing for methods and processes which are constructive, inclusive and open.

Recognising that there are diverse publics, Sciencewise projects are typically multi-strand and multi-channel. As we found when working with Sciencewise on the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority’s (HFEA) recent consultation on mitochondria replacement techniques, the challenge is to try and harness a combination of approaches that are accessible for different audiences and which truly add value to the quality of learning and discussion.

As well as ensuring accessibility, it is also the responsibility of those designing a deliberative project to make sure that the process is as ‘engaging’ as possible. The public cannot be expected to read reams and reams on an esoteric subject before offering their opinion, but they can be expected (and encouraged) to watch a stimulus video.

In our work supporting deliberative engagement and consultations short stimulus videos have become an essential item in our toolkit. Recently, as part of the HFEA consultation on mitochondria replacement techniques, we used a combination of vox pop videos and animation to support the dialogue, noting the following benefits in doing so:

Three films produced for the HFEA consultation on mitochondria replacement techniques by Close-Up research

Practitioners not used to using videos in their engagement work can often be put off by what they perceive to be the complexity, cost and unfamiliarity of the method. Such fears however, are unfounded. The cost of talking and head and paper animation videos can be far from prohibitive, and the principles underpinning the use of video as an engagement tool should be the same as those that underpin all successful engagement activities: a combination of thorough scoping, design and editing as well as the ability to bring the issue at hand to life creatively.

When used properly videos can help to convey complex information both clearly and concisely and therefore further the democratic purpose of deliberative engagement – to increase the public’s participation in debates that hitherto have been decided solely by politicians and experts acting on our behalf. For those of us passionate about engagement who believe that policy benefits from greater public involvement in decision–making, this is a decidedly good thing. After all, it is only possible to have meaningful engagement with the public that informs policy properly, if the public are properly informed.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Medical frontier: Debating mitochondria replacement

The Office for Public Management (OPM), in partnership with Forster and Dialogue by Design, was commissioned by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to conduct a multi-method research and engagement project looking at the possible social and ethical issues relating to two techniques for the avoidance of mitochondrial disease: pronuclear transfer (PNT) and maternal spindle transfer (MST).

Monday, December 24, 2012

Citizens’ Jury on information for women about breast screening

Informed Choice about Cancer Screening at King’s Health Partners commissioned the OPM to design and run a Citizens’ Jury to consider how to present the benefits and harms of breast screening generated by the Independent Review of Breast Screening in October 2012 in the information sent to women invited for screening.

The objectives of the jury were to seek recommendations on how to present information in the leaflet accompanying the invitation to attend breast screening, in particular: