The importance of community consultation

Quite recently, I was sitting in a council chamber when the topic of consultation was brought up by one of my fellow councillors. It made me think! I often wonder what springs to our minds when someone says – ‘community consultation’. I often have mixed feelings. On one hand, I am glad that someone asks a question which may be relevant and important to me. However, in too many cases, our actual contribution is not necessarily taken into the consideration. Far too often, the decision is already made and we can’t really influence it. It feels like we are fed up with simply ‘being consulted’ for no real reason.

Local authorities, government, businesses, they all want to listen to our opinions. We are always told that our ‘voice’ matters. Examples? Closure of a local hospital, cuts in bus provision or even Brexit which in my opinion could fall into the category of ‘community consultation’ (it was an advisory referendum). More recently, some would argue (not me) that the selection process of the Conservative Party Leader was part of a consultation. I also wonder whether any elections could be called a “consultation exercise”. We ask residents’ their opinions on topics, often in line with a party policy, of local or national importance. This is how, I hope, we would make our political judgment. Moreover, we actively encourage people to vote to enhance and strengthen our civic participation process.

But why would we run a community consultation? It sounds like an obvious question however it actually is not that simple. Is the community consultation related to one particular topic, for example closure of the local library? Or is it a more generic exercise which helps to ‘measure the public mood’ in any given area? Is the community consultation an opportunity to build residents’ confidence? Is it also a process which helps to gather local data and build the profile of the ‘local neighbourhood’? Is it a bit of everything?

Like any other project or business activity, it is important to agree on the reasons for running the consultation in the first place. It is equally important to agree the outcomes which will help us define whether the exercise was successful and produced tangible outcomes. Is there a particular group of residents we want to consult? How many people in total do we want to interview or consult? Given all the social media platforms, would an online consultation be sufficient?

It is equally critical to agree on a realistic timescale. How much time do you allow yourself to complete this process? What are the ways in which you will consult our residents? Online questionnaire? Door to door knocking? Is the local newspaper or radio station aware of our community consultation? Identifying key locations in the area? School? Local shop? Maybe church? Do we have all the necessary links with local community leaders? Could we rely on other people to spread the message and gain the momentum of our ‘community exercise’?

It is also important to do our own research and establish what sort of activities (and where) are already happening in the area, for example health walk group, yoga classes, etc. Already existing initiatives and so called captive audiences can be a key to the success of our consultation.

During any consultation, the timing is critical. A local store might be especially busy in the afternoon when parents collect their children from school. Depending on the consultation, for example closure of a local library or a new proposed planning development, the physical presence within the community is essential. In my experience, a simple wave or a “hi!” to people passing by can help to build community bridges and it can be also seen as a fantastic icebreaker.

Throughout my time, as a councillor and as a charity worker, I also understood that the process of actual consultation never finishes. It is always important to gather feedback. It is also equally important to remember that regular interaction with our clients and customers should be at the heart of what we do. If well executed, a community consultation, a journey in togetherness can produce a lot of outcomes for the local community! Feedback and community consultation matters.

* Michal Siewniak is a Lib Dem activist and councillor for Handside ward, Welwyn Hatfield.

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  • We need to look at what we are « consulting » on. With our ongoing financial problems in local government should we really be consulting on the closure of a library? Should we not be consulting of community needs and the best use of buildings and other resources?
    Should we not be looking for the best ways of providing integrated services for residents. In this we need to look at both public and private provision.
    All this Implies we have members and officers capable of this. But the-at is another matter.

  • David Garlick 7th Oct '22 - 9:17am

    All to often it is asham cover for the decision that has already been decided. Often the options do not allow for ‘other’ or ‘none of the above’ answers.
    I was taught long ago that you give (politicians in particular) three options where one is insufficient, one is too ambitious and/or too expensive and the third (officers preference) is in the middle. Often used in my authority with regular success.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 7th Oct '22 - 10:24am

    When on the Council I often quoted (and meant it)
    Coughlin case
    “to be proper, consultation must be undertaken at a time when proposals are still at a formative stage;
    it must include sufficient reasons for particular proposals to allow those consulted to give intelligent consideration and an intelligent response;
    adequate time must be given for this purpose;
    and the product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account when the ultimate decision is taken.
    A lot more detail I have just looked up (I don’t think the internet was invented when I started on this!)

  • Suzanne Fletcher 7th Oct '22 - 10:31am

    Some thoughts from the past.
    a consultation is not a referendum. you are gathering opinions and on a few occasions there was one person against a proposal in the ward for a very good reason, and others were happy for it to go ahead – but it did not impact on them personally.
    you can change the question! the very first consultation I did (going back to 1982 here) was on a change from an old railway track to a cycleway going through the middle of the ward. One of the questions I asked was if people wanted it to look manicured or left as it was. It became clear from the first answers was that they wanted neither – they wanted it tidying up. I had quite a battle with the planning committee, had to bring in the local Wildlife Trust re keeping some bushes, but won and it was the right answer.

  • Gordon Lishman 7th Oct '22 - 11:47am

    One-off consultations need to be part of a wider process of involving in communities in taking and using the power to influence all the matters that affect them and their communities. Liberals want to see people learning and practising the habits and techniques of participation. As Paddy said in his book: “The one thing that unfailingly gives me satisfaction in politics is to watch those who have been taught they are the subject of others’ power, rise to meet the challenge of power in their own hands – and then be unbelieving at what they are able to do. To believe in this and make it happen is, for me, the great passion of politics”.
    It is the same message as the final paragraph of Mill’s essay: “On Liberty”.
    The SLF is about to launch a programme about how to embed citizen participation in local government. Watch this space.

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