Art or Science? – certainly not alchemy

Consultation and public engagement – not necessarily the same thing – are now core processes for most if not all public agencies. Statute, good customer focused management practice and common sense dictate that public bodies should consult key stakeholders, especially their service users and those who pay for the services – usually tax payers – before they embark on any significant change to policy or service delivery. One would hope, too, that both national and local politicians would wish to use effective consultation. This is not always the case, but increasingly it is becoming more essential as a critical element of democratic politics.

However, there are some key questions to ask when considering consultation:

• when to consult – at what stage or stages in a developmental process for new policy or service design
• who to consult
• how to consult
• how to use and apply the results of consultation
• when and how to report back to consultees on the outcome of a consultation and why final decisions have been taken

Rhion Jones and Elizabeth Gammell – the founders of and inspiration behind the increasingly respected Consultation Institute - have written a timely and well presented book, “The Art of Consultation”, in which they attempt to answer these and related questions. They have succeeded in their attempt. The book reads well; it is light but has sufficient real, experienced–based, material and arguments; it explains the policy and legislative frameworks for public sector consultation; and it offers practical advice to officials and politicians.

The book defines consultation and explains its place in the wider spectrum of representation; plebiscites, involvement, participation and engagement. It is consultation that excites and drives the authors but they are not dismissive of its allied processes.

Jones and Gammell clearly state that they did not aim to write an academic book which addressed the theory and philosophy of consultation in any depth. Their aim is to help readers with the practicalities of consultation. Inevitably and usefully they do move beyond their self imposed brief to make the case for effective consultation. They describe its value to managers and politicians. They also address the challenge of the relationship between consultation and representative democracy. Whilst they draw primarily on the UK experience and the English public sector, there are some informative references to how the business sector consults and uses customer insight to shape business strategy and delivery.

On reading the book I could hear the authors’ respective voices speaking out as they do at their many seminars and workshops on the subject. I could also hear the voices of their many customers and associates who have worked with The Consultation Institute over the last few years. This makes the words on the pages more authentic.

This is deliberately neither an academic thesis nor a “painting by numbers” hand-holding guide on how to consult. The authors have set out to strike a balance between the “why” and the “how”. They have succeeded.

However, there are some aspects of the book that, in my view, could have benefited from a deeper and longer exploration. These relate to the interface of consultation and representative democracy; how in local government it can enhance the councillor’s actions to promote the interests of constituents, both with her/his own council and with other public agencies. Good consultation can strengthen the politician’s community leadership role. Too many politicians, particularly councillors, still do not understand or accept this. There could and should have been more on the use that politically led scrutiny at local and national level can make of consultation.

Public consultation policy and practice have to adapt to meet new circumstances. It has to be applied to contemporary policy and practice issues such as

• strategic commissioning
• service de-commissioning
• participatory budgeting and budget reduction
• personalisation – its development and delivery
• partnership working and Total Place style approaches
• consulting processes where more than one agency is involved and/or where the public may not understand which agency is involved or leading the process
• procurement and contract management and the use of a range of providers from the public, social enterprise, business and community sectors
• how to hold providers to account using consultation – including potentially putting some of their reward at risk from user and wider stakeholder views of performance and behaviour
• service re-design

The Art of Consultation addressees some of these issues and promotes the principles on which they should be approached. There are limits to the detail and scenarios that can be adequately dealt with in just over 200 pages. Jones and Gammell may have a second edition to write! With a travel budget they could address some more international experience, comparisons and lessons.

In the chapter entitled “Ready…Aim…Miss”, Jones and Gammell have aimed at and hit the target. I would commend this book to local and national politicians, especially council leaders and scrutiny leads, public sector non-executive directors, public officials and managers across the public sector, and those in the business and third sectors working with the public sector. On reading they will soon appreciate the value of effective consultation – and realise that it is more art than science but certainly not alchemy!