The analysis of the stakeholder dialogues and the workshop discussions revealed eight priority challenges for current consultation processes:
uneven access, participatory disparity (relate to the principle of influence);
limited range and quality of evidence, lack of mutual understanding (relate to the principle of being well-informed);
perceived unequal influence, lack of balance and compromise (relate to the principle of being equitable);
limited transparency, limited accountability (relate to the principle of being accountable).
Participants produced a set of solutions for each challenge, which can be seen in the drop-down boxes below. These solutions will help move consultations towards being more inclusive, well-informed, equitable, and accountable, and achieve the democratic and epistemic purposes of consultation. Many of them also strengthen the deliberative quality of consultations, because they are based on inclusivity, equity and mutual respect between stakeholders, and enhance the quality of information available for participants. The solutions are outlined under each challenge listed below.
From a systems perspective, these solutions have to be approached in combination rather than as separate, independent measures. This means thinking about the overall mix of activities involved in a consultation and the relationships among them. Viewed this way, some of the solutions may not be straightforward to implement because connections between them might affect their success.
For example, tensions may emerge between solutions aimed at increasing transparency and compromise and balance, since stakeholders may be less willing to negotiate flexibly and compromise on their positions in public. On the other hand, some solutions may align with each other. For example, widening evidence and increasing transparency may support improving mutual understanding, because stakeholders would be able to see a wider range of perspectives in published submissions. The context of each consultation will affect how these tensions and alignments play out, so that a different mix of solutions is likely to be appropriate in different cases.
Our participants based their suggestions on their own experience of contemporary consultations, and as such offer a stakeholder-centric view of the consultation process. Adopting a stakeholder-centric view of consultations means that consultation leaders try to view decisions from the perspective of the different stakeholders involved, rather than the institution. It can prompt useful reflection about what might and might not be working, and is a powerful way of identifying whether what consultation leaders think is happening is actually the experience of stakeholders, and/or whether stakeholders are actually aware of what is already being done. For example, information about consultations may be posted in locations that seem accessible, but some stakeholders may never go to those locations, or may be excluded from stakeholder networks, so that they never hear about it. Thinking from the stakeholder perspective can help to avoid or eliminate these mismatches. In these circumstances, consultation leaders can consider whether they need to:
(1) do a particular activity more;
(2) do it more effectively;
(3) think more about the relationship between the activity and other parts of the consultation system; or
(4) explain more clearly what they have done and why they have done it.
Access to the consultation process among stakeholders is uneven.
- Make it easy to find information about consultations and to submit responses
- Promote consultations effectively using media, networks, representative groups, and online influencers to reach stakeholders
- Use accessible language and questions in consultations
- Use creative systems of communication throughout, with multiple channels, formats and options to engage members of the public and hard-to-reach groups (e.g., video channels, voting technology, video conferencing, social media, websites, face-to-face workshops, ‘councils’, town hall meetings, and written documents)
- Adjust requests for information and consultation formats based on the stakeholders’ sector or knowledge
- Create a safe, non-intimidating environment for all stakeholders to participate
- Use technology to communicate but recognise its limitations for some stakeholders and in relation to some information
- Widen access by including a range of stakeholders at all stages of the consultation process
- Leave channels of communication open even after the consultation is closed, so that stakeholders can still communicate suggestions or feedback
- Monitor access by mapping or otherwise researching stakeholders in advance, to identify and address gaps in stakeholder responses that might suggest accessibility barriers
The resources and respect required to participate are not equally shared among participants.
- Improve understanding and engagement with copyright (in public information campaigns/in the school curriculum)
- Improve understanding of government policy consultations (in public information campaigns/in the school curriculum)
- Communicate relevance so that stakeholders understand why it is important to participate and that their contribution will be valued
- Make sure face-to-face meetings welcome a wide range of people (e.g. make them less formal) and enable broad discussions/scenario assessments
- Ensure adequate time is allowed for all stakeholders to respond
- Provide support for resource-poor stakeholders to participate (e.g. training in consultation processes, additional background information about the topic, a dedicated enquiry line for questions about the process or required content)
The quality and comprehensiveness of evidence may be limited.
- Widen the range of evidence requested to ensure all experiences are represented and to accommodate different stakeholder capabilities
- Formally analyse and incorporate the value of qualitative evidence into the decision-making process (e.g. understanding trends/views/exceptions)
- Improve trust in the process (e.g. use independent bodies to conduct research; open up evidence and analysis to stakeholder scrutiny; use an independent body to audit evidence and analysis (e.g. citizens jury or panel)
- Use technology/software programmes to gather and analyse some forms of evidence
- Provide funding/other forms of support for stakeholders with fewer resources to do research
- Tailor evidence requirements for different sectors to facilitate participation
- Identify gaps in stakeholder responses in the analysis and address them
Debate may be polarised and stakeholders may lack understanding of each others' positions.
- Hold regular, informal ‘information exchange’ meetings among stakeholders to facilitate relationship-building outside the formal consultation process
- Ensure there are opportunities for dialogue and deliberation during the consultation process (e.g. public deliberative events, workshops, more frequent face-to-face meetings, mixed stakeholder meetings, town hall meetings)
- Frame consultations more broadly where possible, to facilitate more open discussion, and introduce more opportunities for stakeholders to deliberate during the process
- Use creative tools (e.g. games, voting software, sliding scales showing trade-offs) to develop mutual understanding among stakeholders
- Ensure face-to-face sessions are chaired with a view to ensuring they are ‘safe’, non-intimidating spaces
- Provide information to stakeholders in advance of face-to-face meetings, so that everyone knows what to expect and so that they have enough information to deliberate effectively (e.g. background information in written or video format, before a face-to-face meeting)
Stakeholders do not have an equal opportunity to influence the process.
- Frame consultations more openly, to facilitate more open discussion
- Put the same questions to everyone
- Involve politicians earlier in the consultation process so that they understand stakeholder views better
- Follow up with participants to explain how their input has been used
- Use technology to assess the content and authenticity of contributions (e.g. captcha systems to confirm responses come from a human being; fact-checker sites or services to confirm claims made; email verification requirements for online submissions)
Outcomes might not reflect a balance or compromise of positions.
- Make clear the purpose of consultation from the outset
- Set expectations about what can be achieved from the consultation and about the need for compromise
- Use indicative votes in stakeholder meetings to arrive at a compromise
- Make clear that consultations take a range of views and information into account, and not only the interests of individual or a few stakeholders
- Balance public and private discussions to maximise participants’ willingness to share information and negotiate while also enabling scrutiny
There is a lack of transparency around key parts of the process.
- Create a transparency register to monitor stakeholder contact and influence
- Make transparency in key areas a requirement for all stakeholders (e.g. their funding, motivations, data)
- Publish content of stakeholder meetings (redacted if necessary) and formal submissions
- Give stakeholders information in advance of meetings so that they know what/who to expect and why
- Ensure information disclosure is accessible and understandable for all stakeholders
- Open up evidence and analysis to stakeholder scrutiny
There is a lack of justification and explanation from stakeholders and policymakers.
- Communicate aims and objectives, explaining the process to participants and enabling subsequent evaluation
- Communicate in multiple forms (e.g. a report, a website, a video) and using clear language
- Provide rationales for decisions about participation of different stakeholders and forms of evidence, judgements used in analysis, and how conclusions and recommendations were reached
- Build in a follow-up process to accommodate feedback and explain how stakeholders’ input has been used (e.g. a dedicated email address/web site/web form/video channel)
- Be honest about limitations of the process – e.g. the timescales, the gaps in evidence
- Clarify the IPO’s role, the purpose and limitations of the consultation, the importance of including a range of views and information, the need for balance and compromise
- Use an independent body to oversee consultations, audit evidence and analysis (e.g. ombudsman/citizens' jury/independent panel)