These are challenging times for public consultations, and yet the need for them has never been greater. The knee-jerk reaction to the demands of austerity might be to cut-down on expensive consultations, but I want to explore why this might in fact be a false economy.
Local authorities face severe cuts to their funding streams and have to implement drastic budget savings plans as a result, including front-line service reductions. These are complex decisions by themselves, and yet the process of arriving at these decisions has been further complicated by a succession of changing statutory duties and guidance on how local government should engage with residents. These have ranged from the ‘Duty to Involve’ to showing due regard to ‘protected characteristics’, by way of ‘Best Value’ guidance, before heading on to the Localism Bill and into uncertain territory mapped out by the government’s recent consultation principles.
So what will consultations look like in this new environment? A recent survey amongst 50 councils conducted by the Consultation Institute (see their Briefing Paper 29) found evidence of staff resources being stretched and raised concerns about skills deficits among many research and consultation teams. Another survey among consultation practitioners revealed concerns about the quality of the design and conduct of consultation exercises, and highlighted major challenges resulting from a lack of resources, skills and time. Both surveys also expressed unease regarding potential legal challenges to local government decisions, on the grounds that consultations are flawed or unlawful.
Considering the sheer magnitude of the public sector’s financial challenges, there is perhaps an inevitable temptation to conclude that, if services have to be rationalised, it’s natural to reduce spending on public consultation. Indeed, any investment in research, consultation or evaluation has come under sceptical media scrutiny, with frequent reference to public money being “squandered” or “wasted”.
I have witnessed the positive benefits that public consultations can bring to public authority decision-making, and the positive engagement they encourage between authorities and stakeholders. I remain convinced that cutting corners by slashing research budgets is a false economy: public consultation should remain at the heart of policy development, service delivery design and citizen engagement. But faced with such critical scrutiny, there is an increasing need for Local Authorities to make a persuasive business case to support such activities. Here are just a few pointers to help make the case more credible:
Firstly, from a policy and delivery perspective, it remains vital to use sound evidence to develop strategic plans, improve take-up, and monitor performance over time. Without proper consultation, councils leave themselves open to accusations of arbitrary decision-making and resources mismanagement. Without proper evidence, a policy may be badly implemented and leave service users feeling alienated. In the worst-case scenario, local authorities may be subject to a legal challenge in the courts for not engaging residents properly in the consultation process.
Secondly, consultation is of course also a formidable vehicle for effective community engagement, both from a social inclusion and empowerment perspective, and from a transparency and accountability angle. I recently facilitated a budget consultation workshop for a local authority and it was fascinating to see local democracy in action. Local residents seemed both impressed by the council’s efforts towards transparency and inclusion, but also overwhelmed by the difficulty of the task facing their council, something that they might perhaps otherwise have under-estimated. In the words of one resident: “I really don’t envy them!”
Finally, whilst these are worthwhile ends in themselves, recent debates highlight the role of voluntary and community sector engagement in strengthening economic resilience during the recession. Many consultations have measurable long-term economic benefits, including wider secondary benefits that may in fact exceed the more visible upfront expenses. It's clearly crucial in today’s challenging financial climate to demonstrate the value of public engagement in monetary terms, whilst dispelling the myth that engagement is too expensive. This argument can be made along the lines of classical economic cost-benefit analysis, or by drawing on theory of change models, but it’s also worth considering more recent innovations such as Social Return on Investment (SROI) approaches. This approach essentially argues that focusing solely on financial ROI fails to take into account the full range of potential benefits, such as social and environmental returns.
There is now an urgent need to demonstrate how to achieve more with less, to use a newly coined phrase in ‘Austerity Britain’. What I take from my conversations with research and engagement officers across the country is that value for money is king. This value can be realised by mobilising technology and using innovative approaches, such as online diaries or visual methods. In addition, there is an appetite to harness the power of co-creation by involving service users in all aspects of programme design, delivery and evaluation.
Crucially I see a desire to leave behind the compartmentalised concept of engagement. By this I mean a move away from subdivided perspectives of specialist ‘tribes’ concerned with policy, planning, grass roots, or communications, towards a more integrated consultation practice that delivers real insight and actionable intelligence to all teams. As one city council researcher I spoke to recently said, it’s time to “be brave!”