Luke Blair: public sector comms professionals holding 'sham' consultation exercises

If there is one thing public sector communications professionals are frequently criticised for, it is holding 'sham' consultation exercises.

Luke Blair: public sector comms professionals holding 'sham' consultation exercises
Luke Blair: public sector comms professionals holding 'sham' consultation exercises
Usually these accusations spring up when views are being sought over changes to local services – changes to health services for example, or local schools, or bin collections.

It is down to the relevant authority’s communications department to organise the consultation. Indeed, some of those changes specifically require public consultation to be carried out.

The accusations of ‘sham’ occur when people strongly oppose one of the options being offered through consultation, make this clear during the process, and then find that the very decision they opposed has gone ahead.  

And for every person whose view appears to have been ignored, those consultation exercises lose a supporter, and cynicism gains an extra vote.  

Ironically this is a time of unprecedented democracy.  This year alone we have Mayoral elections and referendums, Assembly elections, local elections, and new elections for police commissioners.  Then in 2014 there are more local elections, and European elections.  The year after that will be the General Election.

So one might ask why we need consultation exercises anyway?   If we are electing politicians to make decisions for us – specifically about local services – what is the point of then being asked exactly the same questions about services which we want our elected representatives to decide for us?  They and their advisers are supposed to be the experts, not us.  

Sadly it is often those who feel their views have been ignored in public consultations who are the most cynical about the abilities of politicians and public servants, and cynical about democracy as a whole.  And then become those most likely not to bother to vote in elections.

So what’s the message here?  Abandon public consultations?  Give up on democracy?  Go and live in North Korea?

Ironically it is the current crisis facing western economies, rather than communism, which provides a boost to democracy, since at times of economic constraint, casting a vote becomes more meaningful.  When there are fewer choices, views become more important, decisions more real.

Being asked to choose between keeping a school, library or hospital open, or closing one of them to keep the others viable, is a pretty stark choice.  But it is also a very, very real one – as any public authority up and down the country will tell you.  

And those struggling on low incomes will tell you that if you really have only a pound in your pocket, how you spend it suddenly becomes very important indeed.

So far from abandoning public consultations, this is precisely the moment when they become even more important, and those who are too cynical to take part in them are missing the chance to make some very real, very important choices about their local communities.  

Those about to launch into public consultations on service change, should be saying with some authority that just now, they will be less ‘sham’ than ever before.  

People will get their say alright – there’s going to be no problem about that.  And the choices made as a result of consultation are going to be clearer, starker, more black and white, than they have ever been.

And for all those people who don’t like the way the consultation ends up – well there are going to be plenty of chances to cast a vote in the ballot box over the next year and beyond.

Luke Blair is a director at London Communications Agency, the specialist consultancy focusing on the capital.

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