Review of "The Art of Consultation" by John Tizard, Director of The Centre for Public Service Partnerships

  • November 23, 2009 10:16
  • Katy Scholes

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!


Tim Coates Event

  • November 19, 2009 09:56
  • Katy Scholes

Tim Coates, author of Delane’s War, will be speaking about the book at the Idea’s Store Whitechapel
Tuesday 8th December at 7pm

Entry is free

Idea’s Store
321 Whitechapel Road
London, E1 1BU


Review of "Dilly" in The Oxford Times

  • November 13, 2009 10:04
  • Katy Scholes

Supreme code-breaker

By Maggie Hartford »


Mavis Batey (Dialogue, £19.99)

Mavis Batey is known in Oxford as a conservationist and expert on garden history, but her latest book is about her wartime boss at Bletchley Park, Dilly Knox, the code-breaker who helped to break the Nazis’ secret ciphers.

A brilliant but absent-minded man, he had been known to stuff his pipe with sandwiches rather than tobacco, and forgot to tell his brothers that he was getting married.

Born in 1921, the young Mavis was due to study German at University College, London, when the Second World War broke out. Her language skills meant she was assigned to the Foreign Office and sent to Bletchley Park, centre of the code-breaking operations which were crucial to the Allied victory.

Her book portrays Knox as the most brilliant cryptologist of his day, who never received the recognition of his colleague Alan Turing.

Before the war, he had broken Bolshevik ciphers and reconstructed the mimes of Greek poet Herodas from fragments of papyrus uncovered by archaeologists.

She plays down her own contribution at Bletchley Park, but it included cracking the Italian code, with the help of a pocket dictionary, to reveal a message: “Today’s the day minus three.” With the code broken, ‘Dilly's girls’, as they were known, were able to deduce the complete battle order of an Italian fleet threatening a British convoy in the eastern Mediterranean.

At Dilly’s insistence, a reconnaissance plane was sent out to “spot” the oncoming fleet, which was destroyed at the Battle of Matapan.

Despite being ill with cancer, he masterminded the cracking of the Germans’ Enigma code machine, allowing the Allies to send coded messages hoodwinking them into thinking that British troops were preparing to invade Calais from south-east England.

This diverted attention from the real plans for D-Day landings in Normandy.

After the war, Batey and her colleagues — including her husband Keith, whom she met at Bletchley Park — were unable to talk about their secret work for more than 30 years.

She moved to Oxford in the 1960s with her husband, treasurer of Christ Church, and made a career in conservation and garden history, inspired by their home in Nuneham Courtenay.

Now in retirement on the South Coast, she has recently been in demand from researchers wanting inside information on what it was like to be a woman Bletchley — including actress Kate Winslet, who starred in the film Enigma.

Her biography of a “brilliant, humane, intuitive, if eccentric, genius” is characteristically meticulous, and she does her best to explain the crossword-type clues that allowed ‘Dilly's girls’ to crack the problems.


Rhion Jones and Elizabeth Gammell: Politicians and Civil Servants keep on asking us our opinions. But are they listening?

  • November 09, 2009 12:46
  • Katy Scholes

Are we living in a mature consultative culture where the debate in the country matters more than in Parliament? Or is it all a big charade with those in authority making up their minds first and then going through the motions of a consultation, and only pretending to act upon what the public is saying?

The Art of Consultation looks at the industry that has taken market research and allied techniques to create a never-ending stream of dialogues that, in theory empowers thousands of representative bodies and millions of citizens to contribute to decision-making. It is openly honest about what goes wrong, but also finds much that is good about modern public consultation. Thousands of public servants and also many others in the private and voluntary sectors work hard to understand the conflicting messages heard from different elements of society and this book may help them figure out if it is all worthwhile.

As for local Councillors ... and Members of Parliament? They might do well to read it closely; it has many lessons that need to be learnt if democratic institutions are to regain the public’s trust.


Tim Coates - Open letter to Boris Johnson

  • November 09, 2009 11:50
  • Katy Scholes

What follows is an open public letter sent by Biteback author and libraries campaigner Tim Coates to Boris Johnson and Ed Vaizey over the weekend about a programme called 'The London Libraries Change Programme' (LLCP). LLCP has been going on for over two years and is run by a quango called MLA London and The Mayor's Cultural Initiative. It has already cost over £300k in fees for consultants and Tim Coates has been trying to alert people that it is a waste of time and money and directed at the wrong problems.

Public Letter to Ed Vaizey and Boris Johnson
To Ed Vaizey and Boris Johnson : London Libraries Change Programme

Just once more and further to all our previous correspondence.... I am going to start making public statements about the London Libraries Change Programme

My view, and I suspect it will be widely understood and supported, is this, and it is probably best if you regard this as a public letter.

1. The Public library service in London is an essential part of the cultural fabric of one of the great learning centres of the world.
2. All the figures tell a simple story; the buildings have been allowed to decay and the facilities they offer have fallen behind the times; stocks of books and other reading material have degenerated to a terrible low standard; opening hours, in a 24 hour city, where people study night and day, are no reflection of people's lives nor their expectations; staff are sometimes good and knowledgeable, but not always, in a world where people expect good service
3. At over £200m per annum with further considerable annual capital expenditures in total amounting almost the cost of BBC TV licenses for London families-- the cost is huge but fails to deliver respectable value for money. There is obviously a significant wastage of money and therefore there should be no need to seek additional finance to do anything.
4. Users don't believe that those responsible understand their needs and therefore when making changes will probably do the wrong things. Public communication of the actions of the service is poor
5. The metropolis needs central libraries, good large libraries and a network of small community, or suburban libraries, the values of each of which are properly and clearly understood and appreciated by those responsible for them. People don't want to have to fight all the time to keep their libraries open or well stocked.
5. A London Libraries Change Programme (LLCP) should have addressed all these matters with urgency years ago. The service desperately needs improvement across the whole of its activities.
6. The current plans expressed in LLCP documents are deeply depressing to people of London and miles away from making immediate improvement. They need to be re-energised so that they bring beneficial change-- people need a promise of regeneration that is public, clear, credible and in the hands of people trusted to deliver it. They want to hear about longer hours, improved collections and smarter buildings designed for reading and study, funded out of the money they already pay and have paid. Savings should be possible, in these times, but only if the management of resources is properly directed and effective.
7 People don't want to be told about endless administrative failings and confusions and about how one council won't listen to the advice of another or how reports have been ignored or technical changes in cataloguing and non standard cataloguing systems are debated at library conferences . Not do they want to hear half baked theories about how council services have to be delivered nor about the possible needs of libraries in future centuries. They want the attention of those responsible to concentrate on the public library service now- and improvements to be urgent.
8. In drawing up these plans, those responsible for the current LLCP appear to have made no attempt to hear, listen to or understand the public needs of the various and many groups and individuals who use, or would use libraries. That failing runs through almost every page of both the consultants' reports (which have already cost over £300k) and the summaries and directions being given by the LLCP Board. The factual basis of the consultants' work relies entirely on information from within the service and is largely a regurgitation of observations of management incompetence and obfuscation that has been reported time and again over the years. The reports totally lack any clarity of understanding or vision. The allocation of priorities and the management of the project has been put in the hands of those who failed to address these issues in the past decades.
9. So for all these reasons, the LLCP is a shambles and needs immediate political redirection. It is hard not to say that those who are charged by the public with the care of the service have not been naive, gullible, distracted and less than attentive in letting a project run for two years at such enormous expense without correction. That needs to change.
10 The only place from which that redirection can come is from those in positions of political leadership upon whom the public depend. Because so many of the councils in London have Conservative administrations, that means you Ed Vaizey as shadow minister and aspirant minister and it means Boris Johnson as Mayor and I think you should work together and express a joint vision- to which you should insist that the administrators, officers and civil servants respond with more energy than they have so far.
11. I beg you both not to tolerate the secret scheming which has brought us to this position and not only to attend the meeting on 13th November at which those responsible are to discuss these issues with London Councils but also to make that a public meeting
12 I also call on you to dismiss from office the entire Board of the LLCP and replace it with a small effective body that will conduct the improvement work with appropriate expedition and urgency

In this way we will at last see some improvement in public libraries in London. We should be ambitious and seek a world class public library service for our capital which it needs and deserves.

I offer you my support in all this - and believe that a wider public understanding of this project will also give you the mandate for change and recognisable improvement. It will be a good matter for you and a new government to tackle well.

With kind regards

Tim Coates

For more information, contact Time Coates on