Sefton Borough Council– Strengthening consultation through partnership working

With agencies across Sefton recognising the need to involve the public on key issues, it was important to find a way to coordinate and consolidate the work. Jayne Vincent, Consultation and Engagement Lead at Sefton Borough Council, explains how public sector partners across the borough worked together with Sefton Council for Voluntary Service to develop a Public Engagement and Consultation Panel to improve consultations across the borough and engage the public more effectively.

Communications support

The challenge

Engagement and consultation has always been important in Sefton. It’s vital to both the council and our partners that we understand the views of residents and use that information to develop services, products and communications that work for them.

Consultation also helps us to explain our decisions to people and the reasons for some of the action we as an organisation need to take – particularly if that involves cuts or changes to services. Our investment in consultation and engagement is something we are proud of, but we were finding that a large number of consultations were happening across the borough at the same time.

On some occasions, this caused duplication and confusion for local people, along with ‘consultation fatigue’. We also had some consultation participants express frustration that they didn’t always know what was happening with their feedback and were becoming disengaged with the process.

We needed to address this to protect the integrity of the consultation process, the reputation of the council and our partners, and better address the needs of our communities. We also needed to make sure that officers across the council and our partner organisations fully understood how to implement any of the changes that we decided to make.

The solution

As we already had strong relationships with our public sector partners we decided to bring everyone together to develop a Public Engagement and Consultation Framework; creating a new set of standards to guide and structure consultations across the borough. As we hoped that all agencies would agree to use the guidelines, we wanted to involve everyone in deciding what the framework should look like. Together we created ‘Your Sefton, Your Say’ which includes eight new standards that all partners across the region would work to, namely:

  1. The way we speak with and listen to our communities is clear
  2. We identify all local people who are likely to be interested in the consultation
  3. We have public engagement and consultation plans that are value for money
  4. All relevant information is available in appropriate formats and in plain English for people who want to see it
  5. All responses are recorded accurately and fairly
  6. All consultation and engagement activities have a clear plan for giving feedback on the results of the work to the community
  7. We demonstrate how  our work to consult and engage with the public has influenced our policies and plans
  8. We will assess the effectiveness of our work

To ensure that the new standards were followed and applied correctly we created a Partnership Public Engagement and Consultation Panel. The panel includes representatives from the council; health; the voluntary, community and faith sector; the youth sector; the emergency services and other bodies such as transport authorities. The panel meet every two months to review consultation and engagement proposals from all public sector partners to ensure that proposals meet all the standards in the framework and reach as many interested or affected people as possible; something we achieve by panel members working together to identify groups that need to be involved and using their networks to promote the consultation or engagement activity.

The panel also independently quality assure proposals to ensure that there is consistent and effective consultation by all organisations, and request feedback and evaluation reports at the end of all consultations to make sure that the findings have been shared with consultees and that learning for future improvements has been captured. They then share his learning within the council and across partner organisations to strengthen over overall consultation activities.  

The panel also have a key communications role. They are responsible for making sure that feedback is communicated effectively to people who have taken part in consultation or engagement events so that they can see how they have contributed. The panel also work closely with the communications team within the council and in our partner organisations to make sure that the correct communication channels are a selected for engagement and consultation activities and that we use data, such as Mosaic, our own business intelligence and targeted research, to identify the best ways of reaching the communities we need to engage. The panel also communicate directly with officers running consultation and engagement activities to make sure that they understand how to meet the standards and are able to communicate outcomes in an effective and positive way.

The impact

The framework has been excellent at bringing consistency and clarity to consultation and engagement activities. Our partner organisations are all clear on how we speak and listen to our communities and this has helped create a smoother process and strengthened relationships between us, meaning we’re able to work in a more place-based way. Adopting this framework and creating the panel has saved us and our partners time and money as we are not duplicating effort and has helped us to coordinate activities in a more streamlined fashion, making it simpler for residents.

Working in this way has clearly helped the success of our consultation as levels of participation remain high and we are getting fantastic feedback which is helping us to improve our service plans. For example, during a recent consultation on swimming pool use, consultees identified that the customer experience could be improved, the visibility of the swimming offer could be strengthened and highlighted that people had a perception that cleanliness levels at the pool were poor. In response to this the council put together an improvement package that included marketing campaigns, workforce development and refurbished changing facilities, resulting in us being awarded a grant of £531,582 by Spot England to keep improving the service.

Ensuring that communications sits at the heart of this work has also had a significant impact. It has enabled the council and our partners to identify new channels for engaging people. When we carried out a consultation on transportation and highway infrastructure last year we used social media to raise awareness and increased participation by nearly 350 per cent. We also used boosted Facebook posts, and engagement with local influencers and community groups, to promote our content and encourage people to take part in a recent children and family wellbeing consultation. In this instance more than 1,600 people gave their views and helped us to decide against creating three separate family wellbeing centres after the community told us they were not in favour of this approach. The feedback we are getting suggests that under this new way of working residents feel listened to and much clearer about what is happening with their feedback.

Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it

This approach has been running for nearly 10 years and it works for a number of reasons. Crucially we have full political and corporate support, with our Members and senior officers acting as champions for it as well as several sitting on the panel. Our partners are fully invested in the principles and we all share a sense of ownership of the standards which means we’re committed to ensuring all consultations and engagement activities meet the guidelines and we have strong processes for identifying local people who may be interested in or affected by the consultation or engagement activity. Our links with the communications team also mean that we communicate outcomes effectively which builds trust, enhances the reputation of the public sector in Sefton and improves transparency. It’s a model that many other local authorities regard as best practice, which is something we’re very proud of.

Lessons learned

Going forward, we will make sure that we publish annual consultation and engagement reviews to demonstrate how the panel is adding real value across the borough and contributing to more engaged and empowered communities.

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Jayne Vincent, Consultation and Engagement Lead at Sefton Borough Council.