Alex Aiken: PROs must lead on consultation

I recently spoke at a major conference on community engagement where I was probably the only person practising public relations.

There were town planners, neighbourhood experts and youth workers, but communications was the ghost at the feast.

It seems that consultation with communities when shaping policy is the poor relation of public service comms. There are some examples of good practice – Harlow's youth consultation scheme, Manchester's 'Sense of Place' project and Southwark's 'Active Citizenship' stand out – but many authorities treat engagement as a necessary evil, rather than an essential cog in the machine.

There is a twin problem that bedevils most consultation. First, there are too many consultation initiatives, which often overlap. Second, consultation too often does not lead to tangible action, reinforcing the impression that government doesn't listen. We need less consultation, better run, by comms departments. Consultation functions should be part of an integrated approach to communication that explains how public opinion has moulded policy to better benefit the community. So all heads of comms without responsibility for consultation should ask their chief executive two questions: What are we trying to achieve from consultation? And should we centralise consultation to save money and co-ordinate activities that overlap?

Too many consultation exercises are seen as vain attempts to engage people without the prospect of real action. Meanwhile, as demand grows for closer relationships between public service providers, there must be a way of joining consultation together.

According to the Association of London Government, less than half of us think local government listens. To address this, councils should prioritise the subjects on which they consult. For example, given that street cleaning is accepted to be the main driver of a council's reputation, local government should make sure it gets this service right – via consultation – before dealing with sideline issues such as youth services. 

Elvis Presley once sang about a desire for 'a little less conversation, a little more action'. It is a principle those in charge of public consultation would do well to abide by.

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