Autumn it seems, is the peak time – when we are feeling all cozy and comfy and just settling in by the fire – for us to hear those hugely important three little words … Yes,
Social media right now is full of plans and strategies, all out for ‘consultation’. You can virtually see it on the communal project GANNT chart – six to eight weeks public consultation before the Christmas break, then sign-offs, printing and roll-out, all done ready for the new financial year. Most of these things are pretty hefty reads too. It’s a good job Poldark’s just finished.
I can’t help but be cynical about the notion of having a say. It smacks of consolation – ‘Well, at least I had my say’. We know that views are articulated and expressed, but the response is left hanging, and the focus on speech alone rings heavy with the implied absence of action. Deeds, not words.
Like everything else, the act of consultation has found itself caught up in the post-Brexit analysis, headed up chiefly of course by figuring out what Brexit means other than Brexit. The referendum itself could be viewed as some kind of (misguided, ill-judged and massively high stakes) consultation of sorts – a ‘Have your say’ on Europe, if you will. But in being this, it either just disregarded our representative democracy, or highlighted the increasingly apparent failure of that system to represent the people, or both. The bonfire of the democracies.
Because that’s just one of the holes in consultation, and arguably in democracy. Sometimes, people tell you what you don’t want to hear. The solution to this in consultation terms appears to have been two-fold. Firstly, that consultation has come to mean ‘we are doing this and now we are having an event to tell you about it’, an approach which seems to be particularly prevalent in property development and planning applications, and secondly a deliberate limitation of opportunity to respond in any particular depth – ticky boxes for over-simplistic Yes/No answers (see the EU referendum), ‘have your say’, but only in 140 characters, and – worst of all and, in my opinion, almost directly in inverse proportion to our democratic demise – the unstoppable dominance of the real villain of the piece: the ‘Post-it’ note.
As someone who has worked in the public sector, in regeneration, in research and politics, I cannot begin to estimate how many meetings and workshops I have been in which have involved table discussions and nominated scribes synthesising those discussions onto those tyrannical sticky neon squares. Nevermind that they rarely stick to anything.
I have seen the best consultation methods (of my generation), ones which have filled me with awe and excitement – a walk-through gallery-sized replica of a human body for a public health consultation springs to mind – but none have managed to escape the neon menace. In that case, it was sticking healthcare experiences to relevant body parts. The disappointment just hurt my spleen.
Surely in our smart cities and our digital wonderland, we can come up with something else.
I’m delighted that Citizen-i has recently been commissioned to work on an international research project looking at best practice approaches to citizen engagement, and we will announce further details shortly. ‘Engagement’ – at distance – and ‘inclusion’ – in something already formulated, decided and in existence – is no longer enough, and in some cases, however inadvertently, is contributing to increasing inequality and exclusion. We must find the route to openness and genuine participation, and to equally valued contribution to strategy, planning and decision-making processes.
Just hold the post-its ..