At a time where public consultation is getting more complex to deliver the luxury of having a dedicated consultation and engagement officer is ever distant.
As reforms become more widespread, there is a danger that a lack of understanding or simple control over consultation activity within an organisation can result in silly mistakes, engagement activity with inconsistent quality and poor co-ordination.
Some local authorities have embraced the concept of an elected member who is responsible for public consultation but, while this sort of scrutiny is welcome, this approach does not catch malpractice until it is too late.
To address this, we have been working with Walsall Council on what we believe to be a very good ‘consultation protocol’.
Essentially this is set of a checks and balances, a ‘gate’ for newly proposed consultations which forces consultors to reality-check on their proposals. It is further enhanced by a number of templates which proposing officers can use to detail their plans and structure their thinking in a way which matches the requirements of a robust consultation process.
The protocol includes the following best practice principles:
- Consultation will be genuine, conducted when proposals are at a formative stage and when there are still many possible outcomes.
- The purpose of the consultation will be made clear and we will detail what can and cannot be influenced, who is eligible to take part, who is taking the decision and when the decision will be taken.
- Consultation will be conducted to a high standard, be well planned, co-ordinated and, where appropriate, joined up.
- We will communicate clearly and in a range of formats, providing sufficient, balanced information to allow for intelligent consideration and without knowingly omitting or distorting any key facts.
- Wherever possible we will consult on a range of options and always declare our preferred option. The process of appraising options and alternatives will be transparent and robust.
- Consultation will be inclusive, ensuring that all those who wish to have their say are enabled to do so and are aware of the ways they can respond. Engagement methods will be designed to suit the needs of key stakeholders, utilise multiple channels and having regard for accessibility and those with protected characteristics.
- We will give people a reasonable amount of time to respond to the consultation across a number of channels. The duration of a consultation will take into account the urgency of the decision, time of year and impact of any proposals.
- Data will be processed in accordance with all appropriate legislation including the Data Protection Act 1998. Results will be carefully analysed and reported accurately without bias.
- Findings from consultation will be carefully and conscientiously taken into account before any decision(s) are made.
- Results, outcomes and learning will be transparently fed back as appropriate to those involved in the consultation and the wider population. We will publish findings within 12 weeks of the closing date or explain why this has not been possible.
We are witnessing a rise in the number of consultation caught out in the conception stages, including legal challenges to the validity of pre-consultation business cases. Now is the time for public bodies to embrace process checks and we have no doubt that the Walsall protocol will help them deflect consultations which could have otherwise landed them in court.