Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Parking. Trees. Dog poo. 

Whether it’s a controversial redevelopment or a consultation on changing equalities law, consultations can quickly become battlegrounds between opposing tribes. 

Partly it’s because a consultation can feel like a window of opportunity for people to be listened to by decision-makers. Sometimes entrenched views and established campaigners can raise the risk of legal challenges to the process, add extra scrutiny to the design and analysis, and potentially skew responses as campaigners seek to mobilise a strong response from their supporters.

Some of the heat can arise from a misunderstanding about the role of consultation in the policy process: “It’s important people understand it’s not a referendum, it’s a consultation” says Joanne a former consultation and engagement officer at a London Borough. “The opinions expressed will be taken into consideration and looked at, but ultimately, the decision will be made by the decision-makers; it won’t be decided by public votes, like Strictly is.”

Prepare the ground

Controversies often have deep roots stretching back years. 

Where you know a topic is likely to prove controversial, pre-consultation engagement with local stakeholders and campaign groups can help build trust and confidence in the process. “It’s thinking about engaging people early,” says Jayne from Sefton Council. “We’ve realised we need to link it back to the strategic objective, have a really good robust communications plan, and different engagement methods which build on ongoing dialogue and relationships. Depending on the subject, and depending on the sensitivities, doing the basic minimum consultation might just not be enough, and you may need to think about doing something more extensive.”

Some elephant traps can be avoided by reaching out to stakeholders well ahead of a consultation launching. “My advice would always be to engage your stakeholders so that you can predict what things are going to happen before they happen. Some topics have been contentious around even just the language used within a consultation, and if that had been sense-checked with people beforehand, it could have potentially been avoided” says Jen from the Scottish Government. “Have the difficult conversations with your stakeholders so that they’re not putting all of their contentiousness into the consultation: they have other opportunities to vent their frustrations and feel heard.”

Be transparent about the process

Where issues are already controversial, there’s likely to be a certain amount of mistrust and sometimes quite unfounded allegations about the motivations behind the consultation. This ramps up when those involved conflate political animosities with the official and legal processes of local authorities and government departments. 

It’s important to be as open as you can be about the process, the wider context for the consultation and the limits to the scope of what you’re consulting on.

“Transparency about the purpose is probably quite key. Having that really open frank discussion up front of what is the thing you’re trying to do here? What is driving it? Is it actually about savings rather than service improvements? Because if so, we might just need to be open from the get-go about that.”

Poppy from Essex Council

Provide context

When you’re consulting online with a tool like Citizen Space, the Consultation Intro page has a crucial role in laying the ground for a successful consultation on a sensitive topic by:

  • setting the scene, providing context for the consultation and what point in the process we are at
  • striking the right tone, using neutral, respectful and inclusive language
  • demonstrating transparency about the process, how responses will be used and analysed
  • managing expectations about when things will be published, and what will happen after the consultation

Controversial topics can generate lots of questions to the consultation mailbox, so consider providing extra context upfront. Get an FAQs page ready for when the consultation launches.

Remove roadblocks to participation

“When you’re consulting on something where there’s two very clear-cut sides, you need to really be thinking about neutralising the language as much as possible to reduce the number of complaints from either side” advises Minnie a senior policy advisor working in central government.

Alongside language, consider other potential roadblocks to participation such as the accessibility of your consultation materials. Accessibility barriers can not only hinder responses but also open the process up to challenges, adding cost and delay. “We didn’t have an easy-read version of a survey when it went out,” recalls Minnie. “We were contacted by disability campaigners to let us know and we thought about the legal risks of not acting on their advice. We had to retract and then put the survey out again, and then extend the period of time that it was out for.”

As ever, the more time you allow in the process, the better. If you end up having to squeeze the consultation period to meet a tight deadline, it may reinforce suspicions that responses are being discouraged.

Manage dialogue

Reaching out to campaigners as part of early engagement around the consultation can feel intimidating. Still, it can provide everyone with useful back-channels to discuss process concerns constructively – and it demonstrates respect.

Rachel from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority recognises that “with a lot of contentious consultations, you may have community voices who oppose whatever it is that is being proposed. Whatever we say, we know that that group is not going to agree with that plan. And that’s fine. But we need to just make sure that we’re telling them about stuff, making it easy to find, and doing what we can to help them be better informed and make a fair response. We’ve also started meeting with them very regularly, and I feel like now we’ve got a pretty good working relationship.”

Frame the consultation carefully as part of a communications plan to ensure eager tweets or channel posts don’t set unhappy hares running. Get colleagues in Comms to brief journalists about the process so they’re clear on the facts, and don’t simply work from briefings provided to them by campaigners.

Follow-up and signpost

Closing a controversial consultation is a delicate step, and it’s important to help people understand the next step in the process and how they can stay involved.

Use formats like We Asked, You Said, We Did when reporting back to be clear about the scope of the consultation and the responses received and consider anonymised response publishing to add a further layer of transparency to the process.

Ultimately, consultations should be neutral and open processes – even if those who disagree with proposals may suspect the motives of those consulting on them. Engaging stakeholders early, demonstrating respect for conflicting views, and eliminating barriers large and small to people having an informed say, can go a long way to drawing the sting from hostile campaign groups.