Room for views

There was a time when managers knew best. And everyone else did well to keep their heads down and their opinions to themselves. Not now. Now, not only are managers open to ideas, suggestions, comments, thoughts and so on, but we positively seek them. Indeed, this happens to such an extent that the once-silent service user is complaining of consultation fatigue.

Consultation may well be one of the most over-used words in the management lexicon, and yet it is one of the devices that is least often employed properly.

Perhaps the difficulties arise from differing interpretations of what consultation actually means. If the people you’re consulting confuse the process with negotiation, the result of the exercise will be disappointing – staff or stakeholders who think they are going to get a mutually acceptable decision will inevitably be aggrieved if they have not exerted a major influence on the outcome.

The risk with a situation such as this is that consultation is in effect devalued as a tool, with disappointed team members or service users dismissing it as a cynical ploy to buy off opposition to plans or decisions through a pretence of concern for their opinions.

Likewise, managers who confuse consultation with negotiation may fail in their obligation to make the right decision for their organisation – because they believe the act of consulting automatically binds them to doing at least some of what the audience wants.

So the first rule for managers is to be clear what consultation means. The second is to spell it out in no uncertain terms to the people you’re consulting. This will involve delivering a hard message to staff or stakeholders at the outset – that although you are seeking an active, engaged examination of an issue, there is no guarantee they will be happy with the result. The benefit here is that, if people remain happy to participate, you will be more confident that their views are genuine and have been thought through.

So, why consult? Why make life difficult for yourself? If your only reason for consulting is that you have to, you can expect little benefit or value in so doing.

The whole reason for consultation is to ensure services meet the needs of the targeted individuals or groups – which could be service users, staff, politicians and so on. But, critically, real consultation must be able to bring about real change. Anything else is just communication, and it is important to be honest when this is the case. There’s nothing worse or more disempowering than being asked your opinion about something that you suspect or know has already been decided.

Assuming then, you want to consult, there are five boxes you need to tick:

  • Whom to consult. Depending on the subject you are unlikely to be able to consult everyone at once. Be sure of your target audience. These could be service users, local agencies, paid and unpaid carers, non-customers (people who have never heard of you, or don’t want to use your services) and hard-to-reach groups such as people who do not read or write English.
  • What to consult on. Be clear with people you are consulting what you are asking them about. For example, are you trying to measure their satisfaction with an existing service or to develop a new service?
  • How to consult. The options are endless yet most of us are still plucking that old chestnut, the questionnaire. Other methods include meetings, focus groups, mystery shopper exercises and users on panels or committees. If you are setting up a panel, try to form a representative group. We have all met the official user rep who sits on every panel, writes every letter and attends every meeting. Don’t they deserve a rest? Research has shown that different groups of people prefer different methods. Younger people prefer focus groups and street interviews, while older people prefer neighbourhood forums. Remember that consultation does not have to be formal. Also, cost it well in money, time and effort. Consultation is not cheap, and scrimping could be more expensive in the long run.
  • Do it. At this stage you will have ensured that everybody knows what the exercise is and why it is taking place. They will know the span of their influence, who will make the final decisions and when.
  • Evaluate. What effect did it all have? Did the exercise lead to positive, effective changes? What would you do differently next time?

You should feed back to everyone, if possible, even those who have not taken part – they may be encouraged to do so next time when they see how seriously you are taking all this. The best way to whip up indifference for future consultations is to keep people in the dark. If people see that they have had an influence and recognise that they will be listened to, they are more likely to take part again.

One former social services inspection unit spent years consulting externally with its stakeholders on ways to improve things. The first consultation exercise drew just four responses, two of which came from within the office. But as the unit developed its style and tactics over the next six years, its last consultation on suggested ways of improving the inspection process saw 175 questionnaires go out and 137 being returned. Being honest, open, listening and responsive brings its rewards. Meaning it matters.

John Belcher is chief executive of Anchor Housing Trust; Claire Smart is purchasing manager for Gloucestershire social services; and Kathryn Stone is director of Voice UK.

“When I was…

Éputting together what I thought was a really good consultation document which was to be completed with service users, I received the following in the comments section: ‘Stop wasting my time asking stupid questions and get on with your work.’ It just goes to show that some people are empowered to give honest feedback.” CS

“…carrying out a consultation on merging with another service, the social services director, now a high-profile executive director, asked how it was going. ‘People aren’t happy about the idea,’ I said. ‘Ah well,’ the director replied, ‘they’re going to be unhappy then because I’ve decided we’re going ahead’.” KS

Top tips

  • Look for incentives to involve people.
  • Support people to have a say.
  • Use plain English.
  • Never underestimate the time it takes to evaluate the results.
  • Tell people the limits of the exercise and the potential influence they have.
  • Inform people of the outcome

Rubbish tips

  • Consultation means ticking the box.
  • We always get the answers we want, so what’s the point?
  • We can do it quickly.
  • Consultation is an end in itself – you don’t need to show the outcomes.

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