Consultations: are they worth the paper that they’re written on?

By - Thursday 12th January, 2017

Questioning the benefits of so-called ‘consultations’

Photo public domain.

Consultation is a good thing, right? It means that you get asked your opinion: your opinion about what housing might be built next to your home, whether you want to live in a 20mph zone, or maybe how education might be funded. That’s got to be good, hasn’t it? Well, I’m no longer sure that it is.

If the state asks me a question, I think that it is incumbent on them to be clear about the question, objective about the evidence, and explicit about the options that are available. It might be nice too if they occasionally took notice of my answer.

But if, like the 20mph zoning, the supporting information is a sales brochure for what is council policy, is that objective? My objection against the first area proposed was that there was no evidence that it will reduce speeds in that area. We will be spending money to no effect, money that could be spent elsewhere on, say, reducing traffic speeds. This question was never addressed.

We will now have a ‘statutory’ process, which means that responses are ignored

There was a local vote, which the council undertook to abide by. But now, having decided to proceed through the consultations on the five zones consecutively, they found (surprise, surprise) that this strung it all out.

Now either because there’s a danger that they might lose a vote, or because their ponderous execution means it would not be complete by the next election, they have changed the process. We will now have a ‘statutory’ process, which means that it is got through quickly and the responses ignored.

For wider issues, the Department for Education is consulting on a new national funding formula. According to Education Secretary Justine Greening, the proposal will result in 54 percent of schools gaining, with 46 percent ending up with less. Schools that lose will have losses capped at 2.5 percent against their current per-pupil funding level. That helps London schools, who in general lose out. Croydon, though, is apparently one of the winners.

Does the Department for Education really want my feedback if they make it so complicated for me?

Yet the obvious question of how exactly this affects Croydon is nowhere in the 70-page document. A figure of +2.1 per cent has appeared in the media – but that tells us nothing about how Croydon compares to others. The report does include 20 questions on how education might be funded, including such gems as ‘Do you agree that lagged pupil growth data would provide an effective basis for the growth factor in the longer term?’.

After digging through the technical references, I am beginning to understand how it works, but this shouldn’t be a labour of Hercules. Does the Department for Education really want my feedback if they make it so complicated for me to find out how it might affect the borough in which I live?

Will it take any notice if I do respond? I have responded to several council consultations with some of my objections, taking a good deal of effort. Particularly disheartening was the Selective Landlord Licensing policy that required supporting evidence of a connection to anti-social behaviour to be legal.

I expect to be judged on the case that  I make and the merits of the argument

I pointed out that, in the long report, there was no relevant supporting evidence. The council legal adviser at the Scrutiny Committee responded that there only needed to be a single piece of evidence and that single piece of evidence did not have to be in any of the published documentation. That felt like two fingers to me. They had not even bothered to find that one piece of evidence.

Agreed, I am a Conservative and we have a Labour council, so I am less likely to agree with council policy – but does that mean the council has a licence to ignore me? I think that I am being consulted on an issue, not which political tribe I may belong to. There are Conservative party policies that I don’t agree with, and I think that I have a right to object to those too. I expect to be judged on the case that  I make and the merits of the argument.

Yet when things get uncomfortable at local level, the ruling party often tries to avoid scrutiny by claiming that opponents are ‘political’. Take, for example, the Save Shirley campaign.

Is it any wonder that people get disillusioned?

This also allows us as voters to avoid our responsibilities. We are too busy to wade through piles of documents, so we take refuge in political tribalism or ask to have our cake and eat it (I want the houses built, just not near me).

So just who is there that can help? Local journalism used to serve us well – but now the likes of the Croydon Guardian and Croydon Advertiser do little more than re-hash press releases, perhaps throwing in a few snippets garnered from social media. The website Inside Croydon picks one side or other as the pantomime villain (anyone more than a whisker to the right of Jeremy Corbyn), and pillories the evildoer.

Faced with one-sided sales documents, constructs such as Brick by Brick Croydon that avoid public scrutiny, impenetrable reports that make figuring out what’s going on a marathon, nobody much helping us out to understand, and ignored when we do respond, is it any wonder that people get disillusioned?

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager, started work on the railway but most of career in oil exploration and production. For the last fifteen years specialised in helping businesses improve their performance. Conservative Party candidate to represent Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Jonny Rose
    • Robert Ward

      That is one logical course of action. The other is to try to get more effective at it.

      Hence next Croydon Debate Club discussion topic is around how to influence the Council.

      • Peter Staveley

        Getting local people engaged in their council is, to me, the highest priority. Unfortunately political parties of all colours are more interested in following their party’s dogma than listening to what the people want.

        Whatever you thought of the outcome of the EU Referendum one thing that has come out of it is that more people voted than ever before. Why? Because they knew that their vote counted for something.

        What all political parties must do now is use that interest by the people and actually listen to them. I believe that having proper local referendums (on the more important local issues) is the way forward. Yes, it costs money, but democracy costs money.

        • Robert Ward

          I’m not against the occasional local referendum but we have to be careful that they are not just yet another layer to prevent action or a source of conflicting signals. My example of more houses, just not near me.

          I did though think the 20 mph zones was a good use of a local referendum although the council came from a very biased position. This has now been abandoned for the Southern part of Croydon for reasons unknown but I suspect mainly because they feared losing. I am highly suspicious of how the referendum in the first two zones was conducted.

  • Frances Richardson Fearon

    I absolutely agree with this. ‘Consultation’ is a mere tick box as a statutory requirement. Local residents here spent more than 2 years building up a strong, valid opposition to the building of a school. The ‘consultation’ responses were evidence based. We might as well have thrown our time to the wind. Our hard work was barely acknowledged. This is also evidenced by the imposition of 20mph & 1 way roads. I will continue to respond to ‘Consultation’ but I feel disenfranchised.

    • Robert Ward

      Sounds like we have trodden a similar path. Glad to hear that you plan to continue to respond, as do I. I do feel I need to get better at it so I waste less time and emotion on it, and hopefully achieve better results.

      Part of getting better is understanding what is up for grabs at the start. In my landlord licensing example there was actually a tiny chance that I could have prevented it because it was a manifesto commitment by the party that got elected. On the other hand there was some chance of influencing how it was implemented, for example on how much it would cost. Being clearer on that would have helped.

  • T Straw

    Do these issue get debated publicly at the consultation stage? Responses to Mayor Kahn’s early enquiry about air pollution around the capito were public. I made a few sharp technical points which others could have read.
    Could a move be made to obtain a legal ruling that consultation responses be publicised?

    • Robert Ward

      Not sure on whether there is any requirement for responses to be publicised. Some certainly are – I made a verbal submission to the boundary review which I believe will be publicly available. That was even video-recorded although I don’t think you will find that on Youtube any time soon.

      Some reports list the names of people who have responded without their actual submissions. It is perhaps a judgment on a case by case basis.

      Problem with publishing consultation responses is that they can be vast and partisan which adds to the quantity of information but not the quality with still no-one presenting a balanced view.

      • T Straw

        Fair comment, and what we can’t be bothered to sift through you can probably bet they wouldn’t either. At least they couldn’t pretend a given point hadn’t been made, though.

  • Steve Thompson

    Good article. There does seem to be an endemic problem in Croydon with the council (and some developers) making it as difficult as possible for the people who are potentially most impacted to share their views. Examples being the recent proposals for the ‘regeneration’ of Surrey Street Market and the meeting on the South Norwood plan, where allegedly only a hand-picked selection of people were allowed to attend. Also publicity for these meetings is usually very sparse.

    • Robert Ward

      Thank you.

      Having a meeting but only inviting the people who agree with you, or having as little publicity as possible and telling your mates privately to come along (which amounts to the same thing) is a travesty. That really should be exposed.

      I am less familiar with the South Norwood plan, but watching the recent council meeting on the Surrey Street market gave me the impression that there is no plan, just a few ad hoc decisions. I got the sense this is in the ‘too difficult’ pile so everyone tries to steer clear, give the appearance of action and hope it goes away.

  • RSDavies

    In my experience effective & thus useful consultation occurs when the body managing the consultation clearly articulates the issues, the options and the consequences in a fair and measured fashion. The issue of “facts” is very current at the moment and there is a significant problem with special interest groups presenting little more than fiction as fact.
    Croydon has had in the past a tendency to commission “blank sheet” consultation that asked people what they wanted, but didn’t preface it with the constraints upon achievability or overall desirability. The outcomes, perhaps predictably, tended to be an astonishing array of “wants” that bore no connection with what was achievable. This form of consultation has the effect also of raising people’s expectations and fostering resistance to essential change.
    Consultation to be meaningful has to engage with all sections of the community. If it is timed or structured in such a way that perhaps the young or the working class employed can’t attend, then the outcome will be skewed. Equally if one section of the community is highly organised and has plentiful resources, then they are likely to dominate consultation unless the designers of the consultation take steps to balance the degree of influence.
    If we are to have a cohesive community we need to engage with all sections. This is not just about gathering their views, but helping them explore the issues from all perspectives and then eliciting their qualified views. But it is expensive and real consultation is dangerous as it can easily end up challenging the elites.