Public consultation is always a good thing, is it not?
No. Just as it is sometimes essential that government consults citizens, so too there are times and circumstances when it is neither necessary, and in fact it would be wrong to do so.
You may be surprised to hear us say this; after all, we are in the business of encouraging consultation and it is how we earn our living. But consultation for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time is to nobody’s advantage, and certainly not ours.
There are circumstances in which government should not consult citizens. The most important of these is generally accepted to be when major decisions have already been taken, or when there is no realistic prospect of the consultation process influencing decisions. This rules out the sort of consultation run as an add-on afterthought to provide a fig-leaf of legitimacy to what is already done and dusted.
Equally, it does not make sense for government to consult when it needs to make a rapid decision: in those circumstances consultation can too easily become an excuse for delay or a substitute for gasping a nasty nettle.
When should government not consult?
There is another class of circumstances, however, where decisions about the value of consultation should also be judged according to what can be achieved. It has always been accepted wisdom that the more controversial the issue, the more important it is to consult stakeholders, look for some common ground, and be able to make decisions that are supported by as many people as possible. In a recent project, though, the results made it apparent that there was very little common ground and that there were no decisions available that would please everyone.
It was clear that while consultation might tick a few bureaucratic boxes, it was not going to improve the situation and might even make it worse. In fact, the consultation process achieved little beyond documenting the extent of people’s differences and encouraging them to dig themselves deeper into their irreconcilable positions: an outcome both completely predictable and entirely unhelpful.
The answer to the question above ‘When should government not be consulting?’ - is easy: it is when government is trying to use consultation as a conflict resolution process. Consultation is no substitute for dialogue.
The unfortunate elision of consultation and dialogue
Over the years the idea of consultation and the idea of dialogue have gradually begun to merge as part of what is known as the spectrum or ladder of ‘engagement’ or ‘involvement’.
I fear that those of us in the field, myself included, in our efforts to encourage any sort of engagement, have failed to distinguish sufficiently between the two. In fact, I am no longer even sure that they really fit on the same spectrum, largely because their purposes are so different.
Purpose is all
The purpose of consultation is to find out what people think; the purpose of dialogue is to help them move forward. This may mean negotiation and compromise, or it may mean exploring the consequences of different choices – but the emphasis is on moving forward in a way that builds relationships rather than further eroding them.
If you use consultation to try to resolve differences you will be disappointed. Calling it dialogue will result in more people feeling betrayed when the crunch comes and difficult decisions have to be made.
Put simply, consultation often divides; dialogue may not always unite, but it should never make things worse.
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By Lucy Farrow
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