It is not often that people take the time to look back at a consultation and ask themselves the question ‘how did we do?’ After all, why bother? Though the dog may bark the caravan moves on. Policy gets made or not and the issue dealt with after a fashion or left alone for another day, ‘kicked into touch’ as they say adding for good measure that ‘the money has gone anyway’ and we all move on to the next issue.
So we welcome Consumer Focus issuing a report in February with the racily post-coital title ‘How was it for you?’ on what they considered the main lessons to be learnt. It was encouraging to see their research suggesting that 2.7 million consumers made their views known. People do join in when they think the issue is important. Depressingly, their evidence showed that communications were treated by the Post Office as a ‘necessary evil’. Consumers and local bodies were not briefed on the best means to channel their representations – local petitions and signature drives were discounted in favour of more formal submissions.
Consumer views were often cynical – a voice from Dumfries is quoted “It’s a sham – the consultation process you know: ‘what are your views, thanks very much, we are closing it anyway’. …they listened to no-one because they had already made their mind up”. The Post Office failed to make clear – or perhaps people did not want to hear – the fact that the consultation was not about whether post offices were going to be closed but which ones were to be included in the 2500 target figure.
Of particular interest to us as professional advisers on how to do this sort of thing, was the situation where what seems good practice in fact had a negative effect. There was an eleven week period of pre-consultation when POL (Post Office Ltd) sought the views of local authorities and the established consumer bodies and took on board what they said, changing over 240 of their original proposals. But this meant that the scope for change as a result of what ‘ordinary’ consumers said was limited. This added to the consumer perception that all the big decisions had already been taken.
This is an issue where the consumer organisations have to be as involved in finding a solution as the body doing the consulting. They were party to this closed process and need to play a role in explaining what went on and why they took the line they did. The risk they have to face is that ‘ordinary’ consumers do not like what was done on their behalf.
The emotional reaction to programmes of this kind where the public perceive parts of the national life under threat is very difficult to manage and give due weight to in any consultation exercise. POL thinks it is consulting about closing some shops and relocating some services – no big deal. The public saw what Consumer Focus called their ‘strong emotional attachment in keeping post office branches open’ as a totemic issue. In these circumstances our experience suggests the strength of the views expressed owe little to any recent or regular experience of the service in question. Very different starting points that demand different techniques to bring to any sort of satisfactory resolution.
The Consultation Institute’s Consultation Charter has a go at summarising best practice in this area, echoing many of the Consumer Focus recommendations.