My county council, Hampshire, is currently consulting on “a range of options for managing an anticipated £98 million shortfall in the revenue budget by April 2017, due to on-going reductions in funding from central Government.”
I was looking forward to seeing some innovative examples of engaging with the public, and laying in front of them a major problem that affects us all – after all, a novel solution to the problem may actually reside amongst our collective wisdom. I was also interested because ‘public consultation’ as a topic has been on the public relations curriculum for some time, and I have long told students it is one of those subjects that industry is woefully bad at, so if they can crack it, not only can they do a lot of good, but there is a career to be made in it.
My heart sank when I saw what Hampshire had to offer. To begin with, I wouldn’t have known about it unless an angry person had flagged it up to me in a community Facebook forum. Secondly, it is a pretty innocuous link on its website – nothing more.
No imaginative thought processes. No interesting use of video or even Lego to engage the respondent, and encourage them to really think about their area, and their daily lives. There is a supporting information pack, but it is far too text heavy to engage with a mass audience. Outside of an election, this could be one of the main ways of reaching out and involving members of the public, so they understanding more about the challenges of public policy, and the local authority understands more about how it needs to meet their needs.
Instead, we have a bog standard survey. Very long. Very boring. Very loaded.
It starts off by asking me to name the five most important services I think it should continue to deliver. No chance for me to rank them all in order of importance – I could only pick five. Inevitably, the same five to eight will get selected by respondents, giving the council a mandate to chop other services, even if we all want the council to continue delivering them.
It also asks which services our household have used in the last 12 months. But what asking that question about our lifetime? Doesn’t our use of services have a changing pattern over our lifetime – some get used at different times? And why restrict it to our household? Shouldn’t it also refer to our families, which may be extended?
The survey does usefully lay out the options about options for efficiencies in council spending, use of reserves, and a variety of options for increases in the level of council tax. However, once these questions are posed, the overwhelming bulk of the survey is then about priorities for cuts and efficiencies in council spending – making the assumption that this is the priority of the electorate. It also fails to give the respondents the option to write-in their own suggestions at this stage in specific areas. Respondents have to to rank each suggestion from the Council in each area of council services – implying that we agree with ALL of them, even though we may passionately disagree with one or all of them.
So, having taught public consultation at undergraduate level for the last nine or so years, I would quite clearly have been using this as an example of a flawed consultation, if I was still looking for case studies in my teaching. There are plenty of published guidelines for what makes for effective consultation, and plenty of common-sense about transparency, conversation, participation and engagement. Instead, having just retired through ill-health due to my neurological condition, I am just another punter, whose local authority is going through the motions of preparing the ground for yet more cuts in public spending, which in the last year hit me in the shape of cuts to local bus services. I wasn’t prepared for how shocking the level of public transport provision had become in rural areas compared to what it was when I was a child – and what it was from where I had been living in London until last year. The council say less people are using it, but when you cut it to such woeful levels, it is no surprise that such few people use it. And now it is going to happen all over again with another area of council services. Or will it?
Of course the council will say that it has left ‘open boxes’ at the end, but at the end of this long survey, any respondent will have been beaten into submission, and their responses pre-framed. What a missed opportunity for genuine engagement – and another opportunity for public relations to get a bad reputation. There could have been much better use of supporting video and audio. Much better use of supporting community events, and face-to-face meetings. Much better use of social media.
If you do live in Hampshire, it is too important to let yourself be sent to sleep by the whole thing. Responses will be accepted until midnight on the 6th July, and as well as taking part online on the council website, paper copies are available at local libraries. Do take part (and I hope you encourage the council to go for options that will allow them to resist austerity, and invest in the common good).