Consultations as seen by the Brighton & Hove Issues Forum

Just posted over on the VoxPolitics blog

As previously reported one of the most exciting local e-democracy pilots are local issues forums seeded by Steven Clift based on his experiences in Minnesota.

The Brighton & Hove Issues Forum has only just launched but already there's been a huge array of participants who, by discussing council actions, have homed in on the issue of consultations.

For residents of the city consultations are often the only way they feel they can take part in how things are run. Many feel the council doesn't do a good job of telling people about consultations, a few do. Most agree that the council generally ignores or misconstrues the submissions to consultation exercises, continuing regardless with its plans rendering consultations pointless wastes of taxpayer funds. There's disillusionment in the air.

At all levels of government I think we have huge problems with expectations management and misplaced assumptions. Government assumes that citizens understand that consultations occur several times during the creation and implementation of a policy. For example consultations could occur once during policy formulation, a couple of times during the legislative drafting process and one or more times during the implementation process. By assuming that citizens understand where a specific consultation fits in the policy to legislation life-cycle government fails to see the need to seriously manage expectations.

For citizens, most of whom rarely hear of consultations, any consultation on an issue close to their hearts is seen as the 'last chance saloon' engendering final ditch efforts. Rallying cries are sent out and the legions of supporters are assembled. An overwhelmingly clear response is sent to the government in the citizen activists' minds. Then they are 'betrayed' by government going ahead with the policy as planned or with only 'token' changes. The activists are disgusted and either give up or move onto another issue.

What happens?

Well if a consultation is about implementation stage issues then it's inevitable that the policy will go into force – citizens need to be clearly told this to avoid disappointment. When legislation is being drafted or a local plan is being developed ministers, officers and councillors need to take numerous factors into account: treaty commitments, legal restrictions, resource limitations, diplomatic sensitivities, national security, party political pressures, corporate interests and citizen views. This is a difficult, nay virtually impossible, balancing act which can never satisfy all stakeholders fully. Can outcomes swing too much in one side's favour too often? Of course, and bias should be challenged but there's a reason why most academics model these kinds of decisions as black boxes: They are unknowable human processes where a single citizen's submission to a consultation is unlikely to be the deciding factor. Communicating the scale of the balancing act a politician has to undertake would undoubtedly help create understanding amongst citizens.

If citizen's are told that a consultation is only about a certain stage in a process which must be weighed up against competing factors then their expectations are managed. Consultation participants wouldn't assume that consultations are effectively a referendum on an issue and so disillusionment would hopefully be avoided. This isn't a call for ignoring consultation responses, it's a call for honest and clear communication. Something I think this Internet doo-hickey could possibly help with.