Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



  I want in my evidence to make the following points;

    (1)  There is considerable learning and innovation currently underway across the public sector at local level—adding to but not displacing conventional approaches.

    (2)  There is now considerable "good practice" and huge amounts of guidance about good practice—if managers or civil servants choose to learn about it.

    (3)  However, public managers have not yet developed a conceptual framework or a vocabulary that enables them to "sort through" the wide range of methods and decide how to match method to purpose.

    (4)  The stress over the past two decades on the public as consumer has constrained understanding of the real roles that citizens can play in governance—and the range of roles they can play within "participation exercises".

    (5)  While organisations are learning to consult they are failing to respond effectively to consultation and this harms potential relationships between citizens and government.

    (6)  There are directional choices—between consultation for decision support and the evolution of dialogue or negotiation based democracy—self-governance.

    (7)  The most innovative new methods of participation are also processes of community negotiation, and of community learning—and offer the most promise for the future.


  Experience of learning and innovation.

  All the evidence points to a rapidly changing map of consultation by public agencies of all kinds. Government White Papers and legislation, new initiatives such as zones and competitive funding arrangements all put pressure on local authorities, health authorities and police authorities to consult the public. While some consultation is in response to government pressure, many of the most successful initiatives predate 1997, indeed it is probably the case that it takes several years of trial and error to begin to develop effective consultation.

  Almost every public agency at local level is involved in some form of consultation—and the range of methods includes sending out consultation papers, public meetings, focus groups, panels, forums, citizen juries, open space events, planning for real, simulations and negotiation workshops, community consensus conferences, imagine and community discovery events etc. Appendix A is a summary of the current methods drawn from our recent publication Managing Working with the Public.


  As part of an urban authority's commitment to consulting widely with different sectors of the community, young people aged 14-18 were surveyed through local schools and colleges. Issues expressed were explored at a youth conference the following year, and specific policy and service areas concerning young people were addressed. A youth panel has also been set up as a permanent channel through which young people can voice their concerns. Although a considerable cost was attached to all these activities, robust data was gathered and the consultation was take seriously by young people, council officers and members. (Case study extract from Cowley, C 1999).

  There is some evidence that the preferred methods are changing, and, for example, local authorities are moving away from public meetings and consultation documents and beginning to use more modern methods such as workshops, citizen juries and interactive internet sites.


  In the early months and years of consultation, most public agencies make a wide range of mistakes—including having vague objectives, setting out on open ended consultation without any clear sense of what they will use the answers for, setting up a rigid process, using too much jargon, organising dull meetings on cup final day, trying to consult in very tight timescales, only reaching the "usual suspects" failing to reach minorities, not involving young people, failing to involve the public in designing the exercise, failing to offer feedback etc. There is a considerable body of experience however now about what constitutes good consultation practice and there are many, many examples of successful processes. There is a tower of good practice guidance, but the frequency with which mistakes are repeated seems to indicate that managers and politicians in public services don't learn easily through written guidance. Work on dissemination that we are carrying out for the Cabinet Office has yet to report formally, but the evidence suggests that experiential approaches to learning about good practice are far more effective.

  Over time therefore, people learn how to structure meetings to make them interesting, how to avoid bad chairing, how to attract people to come from different sections of the community. Surveys are redesigned to make them more useful, panels used appropriately. There are now many examples of successful, enjoyable, consultation.


  What has been missing hitherto is a strong shared conceptual vocabulary, which enables local public managers, politicians and civil servants to be clear about what they are trying to achieve, and why.

  There have been many attempts to create an analytical framework for exploring the different dimensions of consultation, beginning with Arnstein's ladder of participation (Arnstein, 11971) I have produced a variation which attempts to link the purpose of consultation to the techniques that are used (Goss, 1999 p 28).

Giving Information Consultation/ListeningExploring/Innovating/Visioning Judging/
Deciding together
Sign-postingSurveys Consultative workshopsDeliberative polls Neighbourhood committees
Leaflets/newslettersFocus groups Visioning workshopsCitizens' juries Town/estate plans
Priority search
Community profilesInteractive community profiles Simulations
Open space events
Negotiation workshops Tenant management organisations
Feedback on surveys and consultationPublic meetings forums Community issue groups
Annual performance reports Community workshops Community Development Trust
Support/advicePanels Planning for real community discoveryConsensus conferences Partnerships/contracts with communities
Video/internet communicationVideo boxes Use of theatre, arts/media Referendums/

  (From Goss, 1999 Managing working with the Public, Kogan Page.)

  There are several versions of these diagrams, and they have much in common. However, they have often not yet transferred from the realms of theory to the realms of practice. A crucial part of innovation in consultation is ability of managers and staff (and the public) to clarify what they are trying to achieve, the purpose of consultation, the prospective audiences for participation and the best methods to use. Public managers involved in designing consultation seldom have an opportunity to explore the range of options and to thrash out the problems and dilemmas they face in advance.

  Managers and staff are often unclear about why people are being consulted, and the role members of the public are expected to play. Are members of the public being asked to help define the problem, or to suggest solutions? Are they simply being told things, or are their opinions valued? Is this process simply trying to "take the temperature" or the beginning of a dialogue? Are they simply invited to express preferences, or will their decision be final? Are people being consulted as representatives, as "typical" in some way of local people, or simply as themselves? Processes are put in place in response to government initiatives of local instructions, without resolving these issues. (See Goss forthcoming)

  There is often considerable confusion about the "legitimacy" of the members of the public consulted. This results from a lack of clarity about the "roles" that the public is being asked to play. There are different sorts of legitimacy, by which I mean an acknowledged "right" to be consulted on an issue, or a sense that a perspective has a particular validity. Legitimacy can come from a number of sources, from being particularly knowledgeable, (professional legitimacy) from representing a large number of people, or by being elected democratically or it can come from having had a powerful experience, for example a chronic illness or an accident, which has built understanding. Consultation must take account of and balance these different sorts of legitimacies. They all have validity, but they need to be balanced appropriately. For example, a small focus group may have powerful "knowledge legitimacy" about their own experiences, but be unable to speak for a whole community. In our experience the public is very conscious of issues of legitimacy. In citizen's juries, for example, jury members have been perfectly happy that elected representatives make a final decision, but want to make sure that sufficient weight was given to their careful deliberations.


  More important, much of the current wave of public consultation has limited the nature of the interaction between the government and local communities by treating the public as customers or consumers. This creates an artificial narrowing of the possible range of interactions, and fails to recognise the real roles that members of the public play in relation to public agencies. As well as being consumers, citizens are also taxpayers, voters, "governors" and co-producers.

  The new initiative in Community Planning widen the set of available roles, but often lead to considerable confusion. Local authorities and other agencies are struggling to develop consultation strategies which combine consultation with citizens as consumers (Best Value) with consultation with citizens as "governor/authorisers" (Community Planning) with consultation with citizens as co-producers (Neighbourhood renewal projects).

  Mark Moore has developed a helpful typology which sets out the range of possible relationships.

ConsumersGovernors Activist/producers
Consumers either of public services or of services provided by activist/producers Citizens as owner-authorisersCitizens producing public value themselves
Remote beneficiary
Community member
Providers of services
Obliging others to act

  (Ref Moore in CORA 1999)

  Relationships of governance increasingly have to reflect, and to recognise these roles, and to create appropriate spaces within which these roles can be exercised.

  The sorts of responses people make to consultation depends, in part, on the roles people have been "constructed into" and the identities they have been given. If local people are constructed by the processes of engagement as customers, they will respond by identifying needs and wants, and handing responsibility back to the "provider". But as co-producers, people will want to negotiate terms for projects, will want to take part in deciding what is needed and how it is to be supported and funded, and can add their own resources if there is sufficient reciprocity to make this seem worthwhile. And as governor/authorisers local people can begin to balance competing objectives, and to mobilize the consent that will enable a decisive intervention to take place. Local people invited to take part in processes of deliberation about the future of an area learn to stop simply fighting their corner, and look for ways to balance different needs, to negotiate with others, to build consent for compromise. Public managers and politicians are often surprised by the sophistication with which complex judgments can be made by groups of ordinary people. The surprise is as important as the sophistication. (Goss, forthcoming.)


  Innovation is clearly improving public consultation. More innovative methods such as citizen juries etc are more popular and successful at engaging the public, and provide better information about public views. Well designed events can be exciting and fun for all participants. Experiments such as the Lewisham Community Discovery process show that ordinary members of the public "are able to think holistically across service boundaries and build `big pictures of community outcomes' . . . they `have good ideas and can offer powerful new perspectives to enrich policy debates'". (See Parston and Cowe, 1998)

  The Lewisham "Community Discovery" project engaged 65 people, broadly representative of the wider community, in a process of working alongside managers from public agencies to examine creative ways of providing health, learning and community safety in the borough. The discovery process lasted a day and a half, during which time the whole group identified the main issues they wanted to investigate, formed small groups to discuss different issues that interested them, mapped their ideas and thoughts together—making the connections between them and finally focussed on suggestions for change.

  However, from the perspective of the public, participation is primarily important in order the achieve change—to achieve results. And while there is considerable evidence that learning from consultation does inform decision making, it is not always the case that a response can be made fast enough to demonstrate to local people that they were listened to. Feedback and response systems in public agencies are often poor.


  Newham decided to set up a radical experiment as one of their Best Value pilots. A consortium of consultants who themselves had physical disabilities worked with the council to consult service users. They designed and ran a much more interactive process of consultation, based on two-way dialogue to ensure that user perspectives were heard. As a result, they recommended radical changes to the pattern of service delivery, many of which have been accepted by the Council and are now being implemented.

  Public managers are beginning to look outwards from their organisations but they do so with many of their frames of reference intact. The managers and staff who find out about consumer views learn a lot about the failures and problems in their services. But to put right service failure may require new systems, higher skill levels, different attitudes, and new ways of doing things. Things are done the way they are because of shoestring budgets, careful compromises, old technology, and difficulties in communication. These problems have a long history. The current way of doing things "makes sense" from the inside of the organisation. The mangers who meet the public on a day to day basis may not have the authority to put things right. Long hierarchical chains, lengthy decision making cycles, the competing pressures of operational problems, competing claims for scarce resources all mean that user views may be heard, but not acted upon. (Goss, forthcoming)

  Public managers often talk about "consultation fatigue", and worry that the public will be exhausted by too much consultation. There is no evidence to support this, nor evidence that many consultation processes actually reach the majority of the public. What is more evident is a process of "response fatigue". Public agencies are able to conduct consultation processes with relative ease, but they find it far less easy to respond to what is heard within a timescale relevant to the citizens who take part. Since feedback and response mechanisms are poor, the experience on all sides is often of frustration, since there is plenty of consultation, but little or no resulting change in policy or action. Since response is so slow, those members of the public that did begin to engage become disillusioned. There is anecdotal evidence that when consultation elicits an immediate response of some kind from the public agency, local people are far more likely to re-engage—even if that response falls short of providing what was asked for. It is the effectiveness of the relationship that is built that matters, and the degree of trust that can be sustained.


  Engagement works most effectively when it is "deliberative" and where consultation is not simply limited to finding out "opinions" which can be ill-informed, but where information is shared, and time is allowed to enable people to reach considered judgements. (See Clarke, 1999)

  Effective participation involves members of the community not simply in stating initial opinions, but in working alongside managers to help to diagnose and define problems, to explore possible solutions and to decide between different solutions. It is often a process of sustained dialogue over time.

  This has tended to happen most effectively in area renewal projects, where there is a clear locality, and usually new money or a new project. These projects can be very successful, but they are often pilots or experiments, and often shut down once the funding comes to an end. The learning and approaches used are still not usually transferred into the mainstream of public provision. Some of the most successful mainstream consultation exercises have been around stock transfer, (where tenants have a legal right to vote, and therefore their views count very much!)


  The London Borough of Hackney has been involved in a series of transfers of council housing to housing associations in order to secure long-term investment. The process has involved sustained consultation with tenants over several years, and a recognition that it takes a long time for tenants to make their minds up on an issue as important as this. The council employed independent "tenants' friends" to give the tenants advice, and set up estate development committees, onto which the tenants elected representatives. Not only were tenants given a vote on the outcome, but they were engaged in thinking through all the options, from which estates to include, to what sort of management and ownership structures should be created under the new landlords. Eventually tenants on one of the estates earmarked for transfer pulled out of the scheme, preferring to campaign for improvements with the council, while tenants on another estate which had not been initially considered for transfer decided to "opt in" after considering the pros and cons.


  There are fundamental choices facing government at national and local level about what sorts of engagement it intends to pursue, and the role it intends to create for local people in decision making.

  Consultation could continue to simply be used as "decision support" with the real decision taken inside the public agency, at political or managerial level.

  The alternative is to see the emerging networks of governance at local level as offering scope for "negotiated democracy"—solutions which can be negotiated with communities rather than imposed upon them. In reality, many local solutions are already negotiated to an extent, since several public agencies and often private business are involved in community planning and in regeneration schemes. Modern consultation techniques offer space for reflection, dialogue and shared exploration, which can make it possible to build consent for a shared decision. It may involve a series of techniques over that time, perhaps community discovery, imagine or open space approaches for initial "visioning"—followed by focus groups, community workshops or citizen juries to explore options, followed by a referenda, survey of consensus conference to gain support for the suggested option. (See Goss, 1999)

  The most intractable problems, particularly in deprived neighbourhoods, are not problems that a single agency can solve. Problems of vandalism, long-term unemployment, crime require not simply joined up working from public agencies—but joined up working within communities. Often problems are exacerbated by tensions within and between communities, problems of racism or of intolerance, tensions between the young and the old etc. Some of the most effective processes of community engagement have been those which make it possible for communities to come together and learn to understand each other, and negotiate out solutions which may be implemented within the communities themselves. The sorts of techniques that enable citizens to act as "co-producers" of a solution are those that involve time to learn, share experiences, listen carefully to others, explore possibilities alongside others and build solutions through dialogue. The result can be a "licence to operate"—a shared "signing off" of an agreed solution. There is some evidence that the best Community Planning practice is heading in this direction.

March 2000

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