The woes of public consultation

I was invited to a local council consultation the other evening.  I’m not sure why my name came out of the hat, but I was available, so why not?  The topic was performance monitoring of council services, and informing residents of the results.

I realised that I actually knew nothing at all about their costs and value for money, and except for personal experience, nothing about service levels either.  How much does it cost to empty my bin, or paint a green cycle lane on the road, or provide us with an allotment?  And even if I knew, how could I tell whether they were competitively priced?  And even if I knew that, how could I judge whether the service delivered a worthwhile outcome?

But what turned out to be so fascinating wasn’t the topic, but the process.

The consultation was being run in-house by council officials and a sprinkling of councillors. About two dozen people had been contacted by phone and letter to make sure that we didn’t forget. Twelve turned up.

So we divided into two groups of six. The idea was to hold a free discussion about what we’d like to know about, and how the information should be delivered.

Nightmare! Of our six, two couldn’t understand the concept of performance monitoring at all. One was concerned that a neighbouring house was being renovated and the debris outside wasn’t being removed quickly enough. The other was obsessed with a traffic cone that had been thrown into a local pond.

A third person was confused between availability of services and monitoring performance of their delivery. She eventually decided that what she’d really like to know about was the ethnicity of different areas. We moved rapidly on.

So that left three of us to have a more or less sensible discussion. But it rapidly became apparent that using the internet to browse and select information was also a bit cutting edge for most people. So we puzzled over the unlikely possibility of using the local freesheet to deliver masses of data.

By now I was feeling quite sorry for the facilitators, because it was clear that whether or not the council delivered value for money, our little group certainly didn’t.

But worse was to come. We rounded off the consultation with the two groups presenting their conclusions to each other. Maybe the other group had come up with a clear and cogent set of ideas. Nope. Two guys had teamed up to hijack the discussion, and had shouted everyone else down on the grounds that the consultation was a waste of time: the council wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t act, and were simply determined to waste our money. A self-fulfilling prophecy; by sabotaging it, they made sure that the discussion was worthless.

We do indeed get the governance we deserve.

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