Policy officers are regularly on the move in central government. This presents a challenge for effective consultation, as their knowledge and skills travel with them. In order to begin sharing the skills for great consultations, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) piloted their first workshop on ‘consultation procedures and principles’ with colleagues. What can other central government departments learn from running a session like this?
1) Establish your processes before the session and stick to them
Often, consultation processes can be improved ‘on the fly’, which is great for group input, but it can be confusing to have frameworks and guidelines ‘designed by committee’. A good idea is to have the current procedures used by your department fully documented and readily available. It’s useful to have a consultation lead, who can advise on queries and help clarify any uncertainties. As an example, during the Defra session, the current processes were included as handouts.
2) Don’t be afraid to use examples
Looking back at examples of what has gone well and badly can help colleagues learn how to consult effectively. During the session, one attendee cited an example of running a consultation for four weeks over the summer period – this was pulled before the House of Lords as it was felt four weeks wasn’t a long enough consultation period for the particular issue. Sharing this kind of information about potential hurdles could save colleagues from spending time and effort repeating mistakes.
3) Lay all of your tools on the table
Many departments have lots of ‘tools in their toolbox’, ranging from software applications to the personal skills of the team. Look at what you have at your disposal and combine these to produce the most effective consultation. A mixture of both on and offline tools can help you to reach a wider audience. During the session, it was decided that events such as ministerial road shows are part of your consultation toolkit and with the right planning can lead to great results.
4) Get a facilitator to help run the workshop and continually improve it
When you are close to an issue, it can sometimes be hard to run the session from an objective point of view. Getting an external company in can help you to present the bigger picture. Having run a variety of consultation training sessions, one of the most useful things is getting objective feedback and coming back with ideas for additions or tweaks to improve the day.
5) Ensure the next steps are clear
Once the session has finished, it’s important to ensure colleagues know where they can access help from then on. Get all your guidance, tips and tricks in one place – your organisation’s intranet is a good one. Then you need to let everyone know where it is and how to use it.
As policies increasingly span multiple departments, it would be great to see an increased sharing of best practice and acknowledgement of learnings and failures in consultation across government. In an ideal world, amassing a small army of consultation champions (perhaps as one part of a related role – social researcher, analyst, policy or digital lead?) who represent the key teams in their department and could then be linked up pan-governmentally to share ideas and best practice would be fantastic.
With that in mind, we’re putting together Citizen Space user group meetings so that our users can share best practice and stories amongst one another – if you’d like to know more about any coming up, please ask your friendly Delib account manager!