Is your own engagement meaningful enough?

blog author james allenGovernment recently issued a statement around the process for consulting. This statement has made a compromise between a move away from the default of consulting over 12 weeks (balanced by greater emphasis on meaningful engagement) and a reiteration of its support for Compact principles more widely. Compact Voice is of course looking closely at the potential implications of this move. 
Just for the record, the Compact has always had meaningful engagement at its core – with the quality, inclusivity and relevance of consultations as an enduring concern. That isn’t to say that 12 weeks isn’t a useful and valued milestone – it is – and, where that period (or indeed longer) is required to consult properly then this new guidance should mean that this still happens. 

Another key element of making consultations work for people is in making sure that asking for the same information repeatedly does not happen and that the purpose of gathering the information is clear and well communicated. 
Compact Voice is a challenging partner to government both centrally and locally at times. These challenges happen both in public and, sometimes, behind the scenes. Where standards of consultation fall short of what we expect, then we will challenge that (as an aside, we can only challenge what we know about, so if things are going wrong then please do tell us). I accept that there will be a degree of anxiety about these changes in the sector and we will only really know what the full impacts will be once these have been fully implemented. To ask a challenging question of ourselves, though, are we as a sector doing enough to play our part in making consultations meaningful?
My personal view is that we can and should do more to make the consultation processes of government as well as our own more inclusive, widely understood and enabling to the sector and to communities. 
How can we do this? Prior to Compact Voice, I worked in a policy role at NCVO where we struggled with these very questions – how to increase the numbers and range of responses that we got to consultations. To make a real difference we turned this question around – we stopped saying 'why don’t people fit with our way of consulting?' and started to ask what it was about our own processes that were preventing people from taking part.
Some of those ideas, as well as other broader changes in approach have started to make a difference.  This blog post seeks to share some of those ideas and to pose some questions for all of us in the sector about the way we consult ourselves (including when consulting our beneficiaries or communities as part of a wider government consultation). 

At a time when government is changing its own guidance, which you can read more about here, this feels like an opportune moment to look closer to home too. 

Inclusive approaches to consultation

Making consultations genuinely inclusive is of course easier said than done.  Are you just getting the same people submitting to every consultation and are there gaps from different types of people you feel should be engaged?  If so, then look first at the mechanics of your consultations – what’s the language like?  Are you allowing people to contribute in a variety of ways – face to face, online, through social media?  Are you allowing more innovative approaches to consultation (e.g. posting videos) too?
Secondly, what’s the culture and language of the consultation like?  Years of working in a policy environment can help in building up a lot of specialist knowledge, but we have to remember that not everyone is (or indeed wants to be) a policy professional used to the jargon of Westminster, Whitehall or town hall.  Are consultations being pitched at the right level, with varying degrees of explanation tailored to the audience? 

Use what’s there

Compact Voice has a long track record and a lot of experience in working to make consultations meaningful.  There is guidance on meaningful engagement available and central government has endorsed and distributed this document across all departments. 

This guidance is designed to apply to public bodies who are undertaking consultations, but its central principles – engaging all those who are affected, assessing the full impact of decisions, communicating clearly, making processes open and, crucially, communicating what’s actually happened as a result of the consultation apply equally to all sectors. 

James Allen, Head of Compact Voice Share this
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