OPINION: Should the public have the final say?

If there is a Guinness Book of Records entry for the biggest consultation, it might consider the Government’s £3m ‘listening’ events as potential candidates.

Recent criticism of the exercise raises some interesting issues for PR professionals. The Prime Minister has rightly promised to listen and act, but the public, to some extent, has let the Government down. Only 71 people responded to the national online consultation on the draft legislative programme. The formal public consultation on nuclear power has been attacked by Greenpeace and some commentators condemn the citizen juries as ‘a waste of money’.

At the heart of this, the critics may have a point. Consultation, as opinion research, is a powerful tool for public relations practitioners. It provides the baseline for campaigns, the raw material for messaging and evidence of likely impact on audiences. However, by its nature it is slow, deliberative, and to some extent private work.

Getting 1,000 people together to discuss the health service appears sensible. But a more deliberative approach, with a number of events building on the findings of the previous ones, may produce more thoughtful results. And the inference that ‘citizen juries’ will always offer more robust insight than ministers or civil servants should be challenged. The public can be wrong.

There is a danger that communication of policy can be devalued by consultation. Political decisions in an era of tight public spending require more leadership than can usually be found in consultation exercises, and the communications challenge is winning public support, not necessarily reflecting existing views.

In 2005 Harrow Council conducted an innovative and apparently effective budget consultation exercise that has become a case study in how to offer choices. At the election a year later the administration was ejected from office, illustrating that even the best consultation can’t disguise real concerns.

If the research exercise becomes the story, there is probably a problem with the strategy. The current consultation is evidence of the sincere attempt of the Prime Minister to listen, but the delivery has arguably damaged the credibility of the process.

Alex Aiken is head of communications at Westminster City Council

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