Consultation, community engagement and learning from the best

I am impressed with the new members at Canterbury City Council, although I am biased as my husband is one of the councillors! I blogged recently about their plan to seek money making ideas from the community in the ‘Ideas Lab.’ This seems like a clever way to get the public on board, with members of the community working with the council in a shared aim to raise cash for our district.

Infrastructure and ParkingIn general the new council seem keen to inform the public early, and involve them in consultations. A clue to this change was the announcement of car park and transport plans in a meeting for community groups. This was clearly an attempt to tell the people who matter first. Feedback on this plan is now being sought, and is one of many consultations underway. There’s a public meeting in Whitstable on Friday 22nd at  7pm at the Umbrella Centre if you want to find out more, you’ll find the details here.

The consultation that interests me most is the proposal for the 2016-2020 Corporate Plan. This document sets out the aims and priorities for the council’s term in office.

At first glance the council objectives give little reason for comment. The 10 aims are broad and positive. They include:

  • Working to achieve enough high quality housing to meet everyone’s needs
  • Contributing to the good health of local people
  • Focussing our community support on those in most need of it
  • Supporting business growth  etc.

The temptation is to say, all very good, and leave the council to get on with things… Only I’m not going to leave them to get on with things! We’re being asked for an opinion, and this is important stuff. It feels like an opportunity to get involved and push our council to work a little harder. I think they’re doing a good job, but a consultation is an opportunity to influence them to do a great job.

I’ll be honest. I think the council has a trust problem. Many of my friends are suspicious of local government, which is odd when you see what they’re about listed in 10 super-positive aims and objectives. Everyone would agree these things are worthwhile and important. Only somewhere in the detail, or the delivery, something goes wrong and people become suspicious, or in some cases even angry.

This is a consultation on a four year plan with broad aims that look rather nice. So I suspect the council are not going to get a lot of comments or suggestions… The consultation involves a survey with comments.

So there is, ‘Focussing our community support on those in most need of it’

We can say on a 5 point scale whether we strongly agree with this point, are somewhere in the middle, or strongly disagree. It would be an odd person to check the strongly disagree box! But perhaps this exercise will be useful to councillors, and lead to some feedback on what matters most to people in the district?

There are boxes on each point for comments, but I’d imagine if you cared about any issue in particular and had a lot to say it might be better to write to a councillor or council department.

This exercise even has some potential to lead to lack of trust again. There’s nothing worse than someone saying, “What do you think of this?” And you tell them and they ignore you. Of course the council can’t act on anyone’s whim, but what if we see the results published and 70% of people think ‘Inspiring people through a wide range of cultural activities and opportunities’ is not very important..? Will those comments and points really be heeded and plans changed?

I think the council is better for public involvement. But (massive BUT) this only works if there is a genuine desire to act on those comments.

So I am going to give my consultation reply to one small aspect of the corporate plan. The bit that I’m going to focus on this:

Principle 1 We will make clear and transparent decisions having been informed by local opinion We will do this by ensuring that:

a) we will consult only where there is a genuine opportunity to influence the decision

b) when consultation is appropriate, it should take place at a stage in the process when it can genuinely influence the outcome

c) sufficient information is provided to allow consultees to provide an informed response

d) the consultation will be open and accessible to all relevant interested parties

e) the results of the consultation will be taken into account and made publicly available

I’m going to write a consultation comment about the council consultation strategy..! That’s all a bit meta, isn’t it!? But I am worried that this consultation does not live up to the high aims of points a) and  b).

I agree with ‘consulting where consultations can make a difference’ but I think this point has a danger of shutting down communication. I would say that communicating information is important even when the public can’t have a say.

An analogy used in a recent Facebook discussion was about neighbours extending a house. If the neighbours chat about the builders work they may find a compromise to make a difficult situation work better (consultation.) The other side to this is that simply knocking on the door and saying ‘this building work is happening’ (no consultation, just good information) can also make things run smoothly. So I would suggest that consultation and sharing knowledge are both parts of a good relationship between public and council. I think good communication matters and should be somewhere in this document too.

I am trying to work out the thinking behind this consultation principle. I want the council to seek comments because they feel decisions can sometime be better with public involvement, but it is clear that they are seeking comments because their decisions are better when they are informed by the public.

It’s a subtle difference, but it effects the strategy. It supports a one-sided approach of choosing cases where they may listen to the public and choose to be guided by them. It doesn’t encourage any public involvement to guide the council. They are listening not discussing. So I guess that is why there is no mention of communication… It is not a very new strategy to do  it this way. Consultation may be number 1 on the list but this is an average sort of consultation policy. But then again, I wonder with things like Ideas Test and those public meetings, do these things suggest they may want a little more that this?

I think this bit is also interesting:

Principle 2 We will encourage local individuals and communities to become self-reliant and actively engaged in improving facilities, activities and the environment.

I think a council who wished to communicate and engage with the public might find good ways to connect to people and groups who want to make a difference. I think a smart council might even lay some foundations for doing that. I liked this post about this here.

I think there may be people in our communities with the skills who might help with all sorts of council things from community centres to rubbish problems, and I think the council must have many services they need help with. So how do they put the two things together? I think there could be some innovative ways, all tied in with good communication and telling people what is needed.

I am being picky but I also want to point out that the first two principles are not very joined up with this bit:


Consultation is about people, encouraging self-reliant communities to improve things is about people…

I assume they are not considering  the consultation and working together bit here because they’re seen as minority interest. I think the council are missing a trick. They are saying ‘cultural activities and opportunities’ can inspire people. They are probably spending wodges of budget on this inspiration..! But I would argue that community involvement and engagement with neighbourhood improvements can inspire people too. Only this doesn’t cost anything, and it can save the council money.

I get a kick out of going to the Beaney and learning about history. I get a kick out of thinking of ideas too, and being listened to when I’m having a say on things that matter, and I love learning about improvements to our town like new sports centres and changes at the harbour… It’s not Beaney history, but it’s another sort of learning and inspiration. I think people can often be inspired by communication of neat improvements to our town, and I think people can also be inspired by opportunities to take pride in their community and get involved in improving it.

I found one council who had this line on their corporate plan.

Create a well connected and engaged city.

The measurement points included, opportunities to have a say, community engagement/volunteering, numbers participating in consultation activities, civic engagement in decision making.

I liked this. So I would put something like this in my council wishlist.

I also took part in a central government consultation recently and looked at the policy document about the principles of the consultation process.

This bit was very clear. ‘Consultations should have a purpose Do not consult for the sake of it…. Do not ask questions about issues on which you already have a final view.

The consultation I took part in involved a new law I disagreed with. But the thing is, I was told very clearly that this thing had been decided already. I was told that the consultation was only on two small bits of the implementation process.

What do you think I did?

I worked my hardest to make these two things as good as they could be.

Strangely I wasn’t angry, I understood the big law wasn’t my decision to make, but I could  influence this situation I cared about. I only had a say on one very narrow thing, but this tiny aspect was something I thought I could change. I think this was an excellent consultation, because I felt empowered by commenting on the one thing that I could certainly influence. This felt much better that writing lots and lots of points about something I had no clear hope of doing anything about.

I’m afraid this corporate plan consultation is not very guided. I don’t know what I can influence,  I have my doubts that anyone can influence anything. The point above says ‘we will consult only where there is a genuine opportunity to influence the decision.’ But it doesn’t tell me which bits are open to negotiation here, or how we might change things in the corporate plan, or in what sort of way.

It is not a bad consultation, but it’s certainly not a consultation that asks a very clear question. When the central government consultation asked a question I felt ‘needed’, they were not asking people for the sake of it, they told us exactly what we could do and I trusted I would be heard.

But this consultation is check box scores and a few comments from the public, and councillors may just latch on to ideas… Maybe. We don’t really know, it feels vague. Even thinking about it is putting me off bothering…

Also I somehow need to turn this blog post into something to actually submit!

I think I will summarise it all as :

The council should commit to a clear plan for communication, and it should be early and honest communication.

Communities want to be engaged, so the council should seek ways to get people involved and tell them very specifically what is needed.

The council should learn from the best, steal the central government style of narrow consultation rather than a free for all. That also means giving people clear power to actually influence decisions, even if it is only in very small ways.

Central government also give the right amount of information. Not many people read a long document or presentation, but a recent Education Select Comittee gave 3 bullet points of information, one question, and a web forum. That is a very public friendly consultation.

I feel the council do not properly use a resource of a bunch of people who passionately care about their community. They should consider the benefits of actively engaging them, look at places that do it well, and consider measuring themselves against a high benchmark of being the best council for a positive relationship with the public. People like this stuff as much as they like the Beaney!

I worry that Canterbury district resident’s care for our community often manifests itself in hours of free time spent in protest about council things that have gone wrong. This involves people debating controversial issues with friends, getting petitions together, sharing social media news, or writing to the papers. The subtext to this is not only that the people care, but that they give free time willingly to these issues they care about. Can’t we find a way to harness exactly that same motivation, and these hours of our community’s hobby-time in a more positive and productive way? People want to make a difference, we give them no way to make a difference, and their time is spent feeling frustrated and patching up the perceived problems.

I’ve written an awful lot on just a couple of presentation slide points. There you go,  I’m yet another care-about-my-community type, wanting to do something and not sure if I’m usefully engaged..!.We’re a free resource and we like to help, maybe one day the council will accept brain power and caring alongside the council tax payments.

The corporate plan consultation runs until Friday January 22nd at 5pm, check it out, check those boxes and have your say here.


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