Public consultations are a waste of time and a barrier to Croydon’s progress


By - Thursday 3rd September, 2015

Jonny Rose suggests that public consultations are more boring than beneficial


Public consultations are a time-honoured exercise for private interest groups and government to engage with members of the public about the issues that affect them. They are particularly en vogue in Croydon, spurred by the advent of Westfield and BoxPark, and a litany of other seismic changes that will affect citizens over the next five years.

Croydon’s public consultations are meant to build a greater sense of community and provide those in power with valuable insight into citizens’ thinking. They are meant to enhance the democratic process; some people love to share their opinions and want more of a say over what goes on in their local area.

The problem is, public consultations are a complete waste of time.

Why we have public consultations

Bodies consult for a wide variety of reasons, some benign, some less so.

In some cases, it’s the law – most organisations will consult if they believe that they have a legal duty to do so. For others, it’s ‘best practice’. Some believe that public consultations give a better result – the expertise among the general public is (supposedly) greater than the expertise in the organisation, and therefore a lot cheaper than hiring consultants.

Public consultations also provide an opportunity to share responsibility (and blame!). It’s very rare for an organisation to be able to predict entirely the consequences of its decisions. As well as hopefully making a better decision, consultation allows an organisation to spread the responsibility for what it does. On the face of it, these all seem like perfectly reasonable motives.

The case against public consultations

Often a public consultation is just an excuse to publicise an issue. This is, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, but as a member of the public why invest substantial amounts of time in something which goes no further than a press release?

Bureaucratic organisations often only consult because it is the next step in a process. This can be good, in the sense that there are no preconceived notions and no hidden agendas, but it can be bad in the sense that the responses may end up buried in archives.

I’m also skeptical of just how representative responses are from a typical public consultation. The vast majority of people cannot or do not participate in public consultations. In what meaningful sense then can organisations say that they have ‘consulted the public’?

Consultation-based decision-making favours special interest groups and insufferable activists with narrow interests and even narrower social cachet. Whether it is cycle advocates or NIMBYist residents associations, nothing beats the disorganised majority like an organised minority. And we all know know Croydon is plagued with vociferous groups purporting to be the voice of the community yet each having a particular personal axe to grind.

Another issue is that members of the public rarely have expertise in the issues that they have been called to consult upon. For all the comments section sabre-rattling and armchair slacktivism on social media, few Croydonians know the first thing about the optimal way to do town planning or waste incineration. Also, because consultations are not meritocracies – and all opinions are regarded as equal – there is no extra incentive to be sufficiently informed before providing advice.

Finally, the nature of any public consultation is that information is limited: consultations and visioning exercises are limited to working with currently known possibilities. People re-evaluate their preferences when new options become available, yet a public consultation – whether it is one evening or one month – demands that you give your input now, and then forever hold your peace.

There is no wisdom from the crowds

The Wisdom Of The Crowds is a popular book written by James Surowiecki about the aggregation of information in groups, resulting in decisions that, he argues, are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group.

Read it. Like every pseudo-anthropological business management book that came out in the 2000s, it’s replete with a comforting mix of data-driven case studies and a you, too, can change the world spirit that make these things pass easily into ‘received wisdom’.

However, I bet that if more Croydonians were held personally accountable for the decisions that they make on behalf of the borough, they would be unlikely to participate. That alone is should be an indicator of just how worthless an opinion proffered by an inexpert Croydonian is.

Henry Ford, who popularised the automobile, allegedly once said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. He was right: material progress and decisive action is rarely forged by consensus, permission and ‘public consultation’.

It comes as no surprise to me that a Norbury church didn’t bother to consult locals about their fantastic plans to build an auditorium to seat 10,000 people, a secondary school, an education centre for mature students, rehabilitation and media centres, a supermarket, a senior citizens’ home and club and small business space. Why leave yourself prone to an inefficient process that favours interest groups with grudges, an audience that is largely too uninformed to deal with complex decisions, and an output which is wholly unrepresentative of the community that it will affect?

Public consultations are great for public relations and box-ticking exercises but they are ultimately barriers to Croydon’s progress and a complete waste of time.

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • Terry Coleman

    Hear hear. I heartily agree with every word.

  • Sean Creighton

    Jonny your starting off premis is wrong: ‘Croydon’s public consultations are meant to build a greater sense of community and provide those in power with valuable insight into citizens’ thinking. They are meant to enhance the democratic process; some people love to share their opinions and want more of a say over what goes on in their local area..’ That is what they should be about, but they are not and are not intended to be. If those consulting actually worked on the basis of your premis then consultations would be more effective. Sometimes things consulted on go back to the drawing board or changes are made because the comments suggest how details can be improved. The effectiveness of consultations depends on the methods used. The increasing reliance on web based consultation ensures an even narrower range of the population will take part. Its time Tech City addressed the digital divide – something I asked you to do two years ago. If people not not take part in consultations then it will be said that people agree with the proposals. How to engage people in public debate on local and national issues is highly problematic at the moment. No one has the answer;. But the answer is certainly not to abandon trying. If the Council stopped consulting and just got on with the job, it will become totally divorced from the residents, and this will only fuel disillusionment and disengagement in elections. We are already half way down the road to an unaccountable local corporate state run by the Council and the developers. As far as the Ruach Church is concerned it apologised for its handling of matters and today has circulated an update as promised at the public meeting it held.

  • Shona Okeke

    Hi Jonny. Firstly I find it interesting that you’ve written
    quite a cynical piece on public consultations considering how much of an ‘insufferable
    activist’ you are as a spokesperson for Croydon.

    The purpose of local government is to provide and serve for
    their communities, but it’s quite hard to do that when you don’t know what the
    communities want! I agree, local people may not be planners, or health
    professionals but they know their town much better than the officers
    themselves; which is why the partnership between local gov and the community
    they serve needs to be strengthened. Hence – public consultations.

    I agree, they are not always run in the best way/time/place
    etc, but they are a great starting point to get people engaged. Public consultations
    provide an opportunity to give every person a voice and opportunity to provide
    their views on how their quality of life can be improved. Taking the example of
    Sutton Council, they are currently running a heritage lottery funded project
    where they are improving the largest park in the borough. Decisions are being
    shaped by regular consultations with park users – in fact it is the heart of
    the project – a ‘citizen-led commissioned’ project. Their ideas are fed back to
    consultants, who then change the plans and present these back to the park
    users!

    Often decisions cannot be made on the spot and implemented
    because it is public money that is being spent on improving our towns. Don’t we
    deserve to know what’s happening and decide, with the help of the professionals,
    how our taxes and business rates are spent? As someone on the inside as much, I
    can tell you that consultations are part of a wider process informing how
    decisions are made..maybe part of the problem is the understand of what a
    consultation is and how ideas feed into changes in our towns?

    Overall, I think public consultations need a revamp to reach
    all parts of the community. I can’t imagine that residents would stay quiet if
    decisions were made without any input from them – in a time of austerity, isn’t
    it even more important to know what people need to be able to provide a more
    focused service?

  • Serena Alam

    Lovely clear layout to this article, Jonny & CC editors… (and apt choice of photo).