There are many occasions where you need to know more detail about what your residents, partners and wider communities think about specific issues that affect them. This is known as consultation.
In the first three sections of this guide we explored how residents’ surveys can be an effective way of understanding what communities think about your organisation, including what they feel about the quality of services that you provide and the messages that you communicate to them.
There are, however, many occasions where you need to know more detail about what your residents, partners and wider communities think about specific issues that affect them. This is known as consultation.
What is consultation?
Consultation is technically any activity that gives local people a voice and an opportunity to influence important decisions. It involves listening to and learning from local people before decisions are made or priorities are set. Resident surveys and Who Reads What? surveys would fall under the heading of consultation, but the term is usually applied when talking about activities where different parties are trying to reach an agreement or for more formal or detailed pieces of work aimed at finding out what residents think about significant changes or proposals that affect them, such as plans to close schools, regenerate or redevelop a local area, or planning applications.
Councils sometimes have a statutory requirement to consult their residents and this is especially true for issues such as planning, or redevelopments. Statutory consultations are bound by legal requirements, such as Best Value legislation, and can have strict rules surrounding how they should be conducted. If you fail to run a statutory consultation in line with those rules you could be liable for a judicial review so it is important to make sure that you check the guidelines surrounding your specific consultation plans.
Regardless of any legal implications, consulting with residents is simply the right this to do, but you can find out more information about consultations and judicial review in New Conversations – the LGA’s guide to effective engagement (pg 51)
There are also a range of other non-statutory reasons that you might want to run a consultation exercise. These include:
- to improve planning, policy and decision making
- to make better use of resources
- to access new information, ideas and suggestions
- to encourage greater participation in the activities of the council
- to govern by consent (a full and fair consultation, with careful consideration of all views, can strengthen the legitimacy of the prevailing view among those people not in favour of the final decision)
- to measure residents’ satisfaction with the council
- to shape council activities around residents’ needs and aspirations
Non-statutory consultations have no legal status but do enable councils to hear from a representative cross-section of the population. A Government Code of Practice on Consultations is available online.
Is consultation always necessary?
Before you run any consultation exercise, it’s important to make sure that it is a necessary activity. Consultations can be time-consuming for organisations to run, while asking residents for unnecessary information can be a waste of time and resources, as well as being annoying for the people asked to take part.
Before you start, you should check whether the information you want to find out is already held by the council or available elsewhere. Have colleagues or your partner organisations carried out similar consultations recently, or has similar work been done nationally? People can get confused and frustrated by organisations undertaking apparently similar consultations at, or near, the same time. You are likely to increase the number of responses you receive if you reduce ‘consultation fatigue’.
It is also important to make sure that you inform your councillors, senior officers, partners and communications team of your plans to run a consultation exercise. Not only will this help to create advocates across your organisation (and beyond) who can promote the opportunities for residents to have their say, it will also help you organisation to establish a culture of using data and insight and of involving residents in decision-making, as well as reducing the chance of duplication, managing risk, and helping to make sure that the council is coordinating its activities in a strategic way.
Even if the data you need is not already held by your organisation there are still a number of situations where a consultation is probably unnecessary. These include if:
- a decision is subject to strict direction from Government
- a decision on the matter has already been made and nothing would be gained from further work
- there are more efficient ways of gathering the data you need
- you already know the answer (and consultee’ comments will not add to the process)
- the council’s room for manoeuvre is so limited (for example by statutory or budgetary restrictions) that any consultation would be meaningless.
New Conversations – the LGA’s guide to achieving more effective resident engagement, (pg 35) provides a useful tool to help you decide whether you need to undertake a formal consultation of not.
How long should consultation take?
If you do decide to go ahead with a consultation exercise, it’s important to make sure you give people enough time to respond. You also need to make sure that you have allowed sufficient time to analyse the results, evaluate the process and consider their views before you make any decisions about the next steps.
Think about when a decision is needed, and work backwards. The length of time needed will vary depending on:
- the consultation channels you have selected
- the ability of consultees to participate (for example, if they have specific needs)
- the time of year (for example school holidays) – election periods should be avoided
- the level of response you are seeking
- if other local events are taking place (can you use this to your advantage, or is it likely to dilute the level of interest in your consultation)?
Best practice suggests you should plan for up to six to 12 weeks for a consultation exercise. You should also be aware of the legal requirements for your specific consultation topic (statutory consultation has specific rules). If you are embarking on a major consultation, you should plan this well in advance of when a decision is needed. Stakeholders who meet infrequently might need more time to discuss their reply. You may need to allow extra time to publicise and promote your consultation in order to raise awareness. Consultations can take longer than expected, so make sure you build in sufficient time.
Whom to consult
If you decide that a consultation exercise is the most effective way of seeking input from local people, you will need to identify the people or groups who are likely to be affected by, or have an interest in, the focus of the consultation. Will the exercise be an open to lots of different people or will it be restricted to a certain group (e.g. service users at a day centre)?
It is unrealistic to think you can consult everyone about everything, but you should strive to achieve a representative cross-section of views to ensure that you understand differing views within the community. If you have a target group in mind, it may be possible to consult with this entire group depending on its size. See section 2: Targeted surveys for more information on how to do this.
When selecting whom to consult, think about the type of information that you can expect to receive. For example, individual users can give a snapshot of the service as they have experienced it, while non-users might give a relatively impartial but possibly uninformed view. Representative groups can offer good knowledge about a service, and their views might be stronger than those of the general public who might offer more general perceptions about service provision. You may want to set a target number of responses you wish to reach, broken-down by certain characteristics (e.g. gender, age and ethnicity). This will be beneficial when evaluating the effectiveness of the consultation exercise.
It is important that your consultation is representative of your communities. There will be many local variations but some of the groups you may wish to consider are:
- older people
- young people (consent may be required from a parent/guardian)
- people from different ethnic backgrounds
- people with disabilities (steps may need to be taken to gain informed consent)
- people on low incomes
- faith groups
- Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, and Transgender people
- migrant workers
- homeless people.
You may need to ask participants to provide a small amount of information about themselves (their age, gender etc.) to enable you to make a judgement about representativeness. You should be sufficiently aware of the Data Protection Principles of good information handling. Do not disclose personal information about people without their consent or share data that would lead to them being identified. Consultees need to know how their data will be used and who will have access to it. If confidentiality cannot be guaranteed, you must warn consultees in advance of their participation. You always need to store data securely.
Ways to consult
There are lots of ways you can consult local people; the scale of which should be proportional to the potential impacts of the proposal or decision being taken. Some methods are ‘quantitative’ and others are ‘qualitative’. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The method you chose will largely depend on the type of questions you want answered (and the subject matter, if it is a sensitive subject, for instance).
Quantitative methods tend to answer the ‘how many?’ or ‘what?’ questions, whereas qualitative methods tend to answer the ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ questions. You may want to use a combination of both, particularly if you are trying to engage with a range of different groups. Table 1 gives details of some of the methods you might want to use.
|Telephone interviewing||Telephone interviewer||Computer-aided|
|Face-to-face surveys or interviews||Door knocking
On the street
Service user panels
|Feedback forms or comment boxes or show of hands||Open days or drop-in events
Consultation days, exhibitions and roadshows
|Online venues||Chat rooms||Online forums or discussion groups|
When thinking about what method to use it’s important to think about what you want the exercise to achieve, the resources you have available to conduct the consultation, and whether you have all the data that you need to be able to conduct a statistically robust consultation.
You should also make sure that your consultation is accessible to all those who wish to participate, which might mean identifying and overcoming any barriers to their involvement. For example, offer a range of dates and times of day for events (some older residents may not wish to be out at night and working people might not be able to get to a daytime event). Remember that different groups will have different and specific needs depending on language barriers, literacy ability, access, cultural differences and different levels of understanding.
You can find out more information on how to decide which consultation channel is best for you in New Conversations (p37).
Communicating the results
When your consultation has finished, it’s important to communicate the findings to your internal and external audiences. Developing a set of clear key messages to summarise your findings will help your stakeholders to understand the outcomes of the consultation and what the next steps will be.
When communicating your results, it is important to clearly articulate whom you consulted, the methods you used and how the information gathered will inform your future work. If possible you should show that all opinions and suggestions have been taken into account and explain if there are reasons why it hasn’t been possible to address all of the issues raised by the people you consulted.
The results and the outcomes of your consultation should be published as soon as they are available and you should make sure that the format you present your results in is suitable for all your audiences.
You should also tell people about any changes made as a result of the consultation. It is also good practice to have a consultation section on your website.
Evaluating your consultation
Evaluation is an important aspect of any consultation. At the end of each consultation you should consider asking yourself:
- did your consultation achieve its objectives?
- did you use the right methods?
- did you reach your required response rate?
- did you reach all your desired groups?
- how did consultees contribute to the outcomes?
- did they understand why they were involved?
- did they receive adequate feedback?
- were there any unexpected outcomes?
- was the process cost-effective?
- what has changed as a result?
- what would you do differently next time?
- who might find what you have learned useful and how can it be shared with them?
Evaluating your consultation exercise will help you to measure how effective your organisation is at running consultations and assess whether you need to make any changes to your processes.
Further guidance and resources
This document has drawn upon information published online by various councils. You may want to refer to some of these guides as they contain detailed information about undertaking consultations in a community-based context.
- Aylesbury Vale consultation toolkit
- Dover District Council consultation toolkit
- Gateshead Council consultation toolkit
- Milton Keynes Council consultation toolkit
- Northampton Borough Council consultation toolkit
- St Helens Council consultation code