I am sure I am not the only person working in the field of public involvement who has been wondering what the impact of our current financial crisis will be on the work which organisations have been doing to engage with public and with public service users. So it was interesting to attend a round table session held by The Consultation Institute for consultants involved in public consultation.
A lot of it about
No-one has yet carried out a proper market analysis of the public engagement sector although the Institute’s Rhion Jones reckons it is worth millions. The problem is that although everybody is at it, many organisations have difficulty recognising it when they see it and have never thought to add up the cost of it all. Try asking your average Primary Care Trust how much money they spend each year on engaging with their users and I bet your bottom euro few if any will be able to tell you. You can be sure there will be high level surveys on which thousands of pounds are spent, well-intentioned tiny questionnaires in the foot health department, public meetings (with lots of sandwiches and lots of staff in an empty room) and enough leaflets to repaper every GP surgery in the Trust. But no-one will have added up the cost, let alone identified what all this expenditure is designed to achieve or whether it has made any difference to anything or anyone. The same is probably true in most local authorities.
Horizontal activity and why we like it
The problem is that Public/User Involvement/Engagement, or whatever you want to call it, is the ultimate “horizontal activity”. It is hard to find boards or senior managers who are willing to shake out the silos and build user involvement into their plans and their activities in a strategic way across their organisation. Their were nods of recognition when consultants described working with organisations which run numerous consultations, each one run by a different manager, supported by a different team, with different contact lists and making the same mistakes. Too often the lessons learnt in Department A never even make it to the room next door, let alone to Departments B to Z. To make matters worse, much of this work is outsourced to an army of different consultants, researchers, PR people and others who sit frustratedly in their allocated silos wondering how they can write their final report in a way which might actually influence the organisation’s future strategy and behaviour. Perhaps this will be the year when the silos get emptied out and the wheat is separated from the chaff.
Doing the right things and doing them well
According to Rhionn Jones who has done the back-of-the-envelope calculations, public sector bodies and central government are spending many millions on engagement activities and with all the pressure of new legislation, we can hope that this work will remain a priority. Maybe a little budgetary tension will force organisations to look more closely at how they are spending their money. Organisations will be looking for methods which produce a high return for their investment: more e consultation, fewer uneaten sandwiches; fewer (and better) questions asked, more listening to the answers.
The costs of getting it wrong
It is easy to imagine hard-pressed managers sidelining public engagement work in favour of things which are less troublesome but we do at least have one thing working in our favour. It seems very likely that 2009 will be the year when at least some of the carrots are replaced by big sticks. In health especially, as reconfiguration starts to bite, we are going to see more decisions going to judicial review. Organisations might finally be forced to recognise the benefits of getting their consultation processes right, really right. Is it time for nationally recognised standards to be set for consultation and other public engagement activity so that everyone including the judges and the lawyers can recognise when it is done well? Managers will need support and practical help as they tackle big consultation processes before, during and (importantly) after the consultation process has been completed. The Consultation Institute offers training and seminars for practitioners to help them with every aspect of this process and MAC looks forward to working with them and others to make investment in listening to users and the public a better managed undertaking offering both valuable insights and value for money.
The first priority?
It is always easier to improve processes which take place outside the organisation – think of the ease of organising a survey. Just get a budget, and squads of competent market researchers will throng to your door to do it for you. The difficult bit is getting anyone in the organisation to pay any heed to the result. For MAC’s money, we would like to experiment with consultations where the whole process of the gathering of information, compilation and analysis is supplemented by a new focus on what happens next. We are seeing some innovative work in Wandsworth with a pre-consultation phase which prepares people for what will come next in the form of more detailed questions and work with health-related issues. We want a new emphasis on the post-consultative period – who sees the analysis of responses? how will they use it? In our experience, the organisations that use information best are those with the clearest idea of why they gathered it in the first place and how they are going to use in the future. The idea of compulsion to carry out consultation may not be helpful (we have written before how rules about ‘it must last 12 weeks’ do little for consultation quality) and equally, it is hard to see a sensible way to compell people to use the information they gather. But for our money, the route to money better spent is better planning for use rather than spending for show.