Public consultation 2.0
Public consultations aim to do what they say on the tin: engage with the public. But often that tin is too shallow, and the people's voices aren't truly given the platform to be heard. So what could the future of public consultations look like instead?
Just a few days ago I received a letter from my Council asking for my views on a planning proposal. I was interested. I wanted to provide feedback, but I faced too many obstacles: I could only view the application and supporting drawings during their office hours (which coincide with my work hours), I had to compose and post a letter to provide feedback (which seemed far too time consuming), and I was sent to the Council’s homepage for more information (with information on that proposal nowhere to be found).
This “consultation” felt empty and even farcical. I’m not the first to feel this way. With a promise to embed community experiences and opinions in local decision-making, many consultations are met with similar cynicism, with the public viewing them as box-ticking exercises, serving only the interests of local authorities and other public bodies.
Time is ripe to refresh our approach to public consultation: public trust is low; communities have diversified; and we have more tools available to capture citizen behaviours and opinions.
A quick look at public opinions on recent consultations brings up quotes from local citizens who echo these sentiments:
"The questionnaire is over-complicated…the questionnaire contains leading questions." (Public consultation on primary school improvements, 2013)
"The consultation was not representative, and an online petition was launched calling for the consultation to be run again." (Public consultation on local development plans, 2015)
"Even more worrying was that there was nothing about the unique qualities of our town and it’s setting." (Public consultation on development and infrastructure plans, 2015)
These are not new issues either. In 2001, a review of public participation and consultation methods flagged similar challenges. For example, not engaging with representative groups of people, relying on methods (e.g. surveys and emails) that result in superficial feedback and using approaches that lack a sense of community ownership.
Almost ten years after this review, during his 2010 Big Society speech, David Cameron proclaimed, “The rule of this government should be this: If it unleashes community engagement - we should do it. If it crushes it - we shouldn’t”. It’s been close to four years now and this rhetoric still has yet to become widely adopted practice.
There are some efforts being made to put this to practice, including neighbourhood planning projects in communities like Southwark. These opportunities give local citizens a more hands on role in the planning of their neighbourhoods, including the consultation process. Kent County Council has also launched a social innovation lab that applies user-centred and participatory methods to local policy and service design. While these are both noteworthy, they are definitely not the norm and often appear in more privileged parts of society.
With all this in mind, it seems that time is ripe for changes in public consultation practices: a history of unfulfilled promises for better engagement has led to public mistrust; communities have diversified, including wider ranges of experiences and needs; and we now have more tools at our disposal to capture citizen behaviours and opinions.
So what does the future of public consultation look like? What if consultations moved beyond traditional methods like surveys and engaged more directly with residents, in more natural contexts? How could the process leverage existing engagement tools and community data? How would that affect public trust in consultations and local decision-making?
- Over the years, public consultations have been met with cynicism, with the public viewing them as box-ticking exercises.
- Whilst there’s been growing rhetoric around better community engagement in public consultations it has yet to become a widely adopted practice.
- Time is ripe for change in the consultation process: promises have been broken, public trust is low, communities have diversified and there is a growing number of tools available to enable better engagement.
Ableson, J. et al. (2001) "Deliberations about Deliberation: Issues in the Design and Evaluation of Public Consultation Processes, McMaster University Centre for Health Economics and Policy Analysis Research" (Working Paper 01-04)
Bryan, Hannah. (2015) "Council leader defends public consultation for combined authority following criticism"
Cabinet Office. (2010) "Transcript of a speech by the Prime Minister on the Big Society", 19 July 2010
IBP Strategy and Research. (2013) "East Dunbartonshire Council Primary School Improvement Programme: Report on Informal Public Consultation".
The Sudbury Society (2015) "Our criticism of the so-called ‘Consultation’"
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