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Consultation: is a new category needed?

Cartoon of two men talking

Recently I had the doubtful pleasure of attending a “consultation” session hosted by a government department (Which Shall Remain Nameless – let’s call it DWSRN) for a new program.

As someone who believes in the principles of consultation and has witnessed the power of it, I feel quite scarred by the whole experience, as well as shocked by how badly my tax dollar is being spent.

The sessions generated a lot of interest and filled up quickly via a nifty online registration system – but it was all downhill after that.

Basically, it was not consultation. If I were being generous, I would say it was an information session. However, ranking the exercise on the Institute of Public Participation (IAP2) spectrum (inform/consult/involve/collaborate/empower), we were definitely to the left of “inform”, and into a sixth category – “hint”.

It’s perfectly legitimate to hold information sessions. We’ve been doing it for decades, perhaps centuries. I am sure the ancient Romans used their lovely plazas for such activities. Usually a fundamental requirement is to actually impart information. The session in question did include a lengthy Q&A. Unfortunately the poor public servant at the front of the room did not really have many ‘A’s to give us. Awkward – both for the PS and the bemused audience.

It’s true that consultation is ‘the new black’ but it’s not always the answer. It can get in the way of implementing the most logical (sometimes unpopular) solutions. It can be hijacked by the “squeaky wheels” who push their own agenda at the expense of the majority. It can drag out simple decisions indefinitely.

Yet, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.

To that end, I have three recommendations for DWSRN:

  1. Respect your audience. Any consultation process has to be underpinned by a genuine respect for your audience, and a willingness to consider their input as part of the decision-making process. It is also important to be clear about the “promise”, that is how their contribution will be used and what other factors might impact. If you don’t meet the expectations you create, the audience will be cynical about the process.
  2. Be careful with terminology. Don’t say consultation when you mean “tick box”. I have a strong suspicion that in attending, I will appear on the We have Consulted List under “private enterprise” or “SME”. I would suggest I fit best under another category – “angry taxpayer”.
  3. Make it meaningful. Provide new information or opportunities for your audience – their time is precious so don’t waste it by just pushing your agenda. Use the session to enhance the reputation of your organisation, rather than diminish it.

I am proud to say that I have worked on a genuine and successful consultation with the Australian dairy industry to develop a Sustainability Framework. Consultation is ongoing but over the first three years of the project, I have seen sound process established, genuine consideration of a range of opinions from different stakeholders, and things changing as a result of feedback received.

DWSRN – please take note!

About Gabrielle Sheehan

Gabrielle is the great-all-rounder: manager of consultation and stakeholder relations, writer of strategies and case studies, developer of collateral, passionate traveller and occasional tango dancer. She listens, she writes and she delivers. She’s had extensive experience and knows how to navigate government departments and the corporate world. Read more posts by Gabrielle.

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