Children’s centre consultations

Consultations that cut corners won’t cut costs. Councils that fail to pay due deference to public consultation have paid the price in the High Court. Simply cutting services is no longer an option.

From day centres to youth services, it’s important to remember that the simple act of consultation is simply not enough, particularly if that process is considered “flawed” or fails to take into account the needs of “vulnerable groups“.

As a consultation provider, the process of responding to RFQs, costing a robust approach is a skilled art to master at the best of times. That delicate balancing act between anticipating the resource required, the budget available and the necessity to make a profit against the potential for a High Court appearance really focuses the mind.

In an increasingly litigious world, understanding the consequences of an ill-judged consultation brief is even more important than responding to their request for external support. Whilst the requirement to consult might be statutory, such as proposing “significant changes” to Children’s Centre provision, defining that process is as much about common sense as it is about fulfilling any legal requirements.

From the Cabinet Office Consultation Principles to the Market Research Society Code of Conduct, designing an informative, transparent, inclusive consultation process is the very least that the public should expect. Yet the pressures caused by the ever present need to save money, mean that from Devon to Lincolnshire, allegations persist that Councils are cutting first and asking questions later.

So what should the responsible researcher do? Going through the motions of facilitating a process where the outcome is already known is all well and good if the stakeholder group are apathetic, but what if they aren’t? In my opinion, there are two key questions to understanding whether or not you are on the right track:

Who will be affected?

Understanding your stakeholders groups is key to publicising and designing your consultation. If stakeholders don’t know there is a consultation going on, how can they respond? Websites and press releases are one thing, but what if the stakeholders have language or advocacy needs? Are the consultation materials and venues accessible to everyone affected?

What decision is to be taken?

We know that consultation increasingly forms part of the statutory decision making process. Understanding at what point in the decision making process a consultation is occurring is essential. Pretending a decision hasn’t been taken when it actually has, is as illegal as it is immoral. Setting expectations from the outset is important, stakeholders should have sufficient information to provide an informed opinion and understand what role their participation will play in the final analysis.

In my experience, an increasing number of project timescales and specifications are being designed around the convenience of the organisation doing the consulting, rather than the people they are seeking to consult with. My concern is that this is contributing to a growing public malaise that these exercises are a waste of time. At its worst, the pressures on time and resources are leading to situations where briefs are being issued after questionnaires have been published, press releases issued and venues booked.

From the perspective of the agency, understanding the research brief determines the approach to be used and the appropriate charging schedule. Professionally speaking, our credibility as researchers is on the line, not to mention public confidence in our profession. I want to understand who the stakeholder groups are because if I’m told to recruit focus groups, I need to know who needs to be represented as much as I need to know how many people I need to recruit. Understanding the public’s expectations for a meeting that I’m facilitating is every bit as important as knowing how long it’s going to last, how many colleagues I’ll need and when my client wants to get their report.

Asking the difficult questions might not be a great way to win friends and influence people, but ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law. Rushing a process through might be convenient in the short-term, but if it results in a successful challenge in the Courts, what has really been achieved?

To find out how Cognisant can ensure your consultation is fit for purpose, call us today.