David Porteous, Strategy and Insight Manager at the City of Edinburgh Council, doesn’t speak in sentences. He speaks in measured, fully-formed paragraphs, and has a lot to say. This piece is taken from a conversation I had with him in August, where we spoke for an hour and a half and covered so much ground that I’m breaking it up into three different articles. It would seem a disservice to try and whittle it down into just one.

He’s been a public servant to the City of Edinburgh for 15 years, so he knows a thing or two about the inner workings of a local authority. Some background: City of Edinburgh have been Delib customers since 2014. Since then, they’ve used all three of our tools, and their Citizen Space subscription has remained constant throughout.

One thing that was really interesting to hear him talk about was the specific ways in which consultation ties into policy-making at City of Edinburgh Council. There are myriad different ways to consult the public, and we see most of them used on Citizen Space, Delib’s flagship digital consultation tool, at some point or other.

Consultation as research

What struck me about hearing David talk about how Edinburgh do it is that there’s so much more to consultation than just getting some comments on a policy draft. When done effectively, it functions as continuous, ongoing research. Consultation can be to the public sector what market research is to the private sector: getting feedback on existing systems/policies, gauging public interest in introducing schemes, and getting an idea of what the public want for the future. The way Edinburgh consult integrates with all stages of their policy cycle: formulation, design, implementation and evaluation.

Practically, this means consulting in multiple stages, which they do frequently, particularly on higher-profile consultations. Edinburgh’s Draft Tourism Strategy 2030 – Phase 3 is open on their site at time of writing.

Screenshot of Edinburgh's Tourism Strategy consultation, which will be incorporated in the policy cycle
Edinburgh’s Tourism Strategy consultation, which will be incorporated into the policy cycle

“We use consultation for multiple purposes. Sometimes it is statutory – government has told us that we have to do this and therefore we will do it as well as we can. And sometimes what we’re thinking about is how we push a particular agenda around something. That could be us building genuine public support for it; that could be about us gauging existing public support; and that can be about us creating mandates for change.

“Our approach has been to go as far as we can with each stage, to understand what the support is for our thinking at that stage, and then to see if we can go further with it. If we were to look at something like the city centre transformation, we had a large engagement activity that took place last year where we were testing attitudes to a lot of different policy areas. What will fall out of that, what already has in some cases, is more detailed consultation activity this year. A low emissions zone for the city was something that was floated for the first time last year, and this year we consulted on the specifics of introducing it, which was very well supported both times. With the introduction of a ‘tourist tax’, we had the same thing: a testing of public attitudes in a ‘general sense’ consultation, and then we’ll follow up with the specifics of introducing a policy as and when it becomes legal for us to do it.”

Citizen Space allows people to go back and follow that thread of engagement activity; people can go back and see…the consultation that happened [and] the response to it, and then follow that through to the next phase.

It means that they’re consulting more often, but Citizen Space’s centralised platform means it’s easy for citizens to keep track of the updates. Consultations can link back to previous iterations, link to or embed feedback reports, and summaries of consultation results and subsequent actions can be seen under the ‘We Asked, You Said, We Did’ tab on an organisation’s consultation hub.

“Citizen Space allows people to go back and follow that thread of engagement activity; people can go back and see, that was the consultation that happened on whether or not there should be a Low Emissions Zone in Edinburgh; that was the response to it; and then follow that through to the next phase where we consult on the specifics of introducing it.”

Testing the water

Using the multi-stage consultation process does involve more work and planning, rather than the typical approach of developing policy and keeping consultation fairly separate from the process until the later stages. However, for Edinburgh, it’s actually created efficiencies in that they’re not creating policies that wind up being vehemently opposed by the public after the work’s already been put in developing them.

“For any area of policy development, our concerns are…” He laughs. “It sounds ridiculous, but ‘what do the public think about this?’ And it’s not even necessarily about whether they’d support this measure or oppose it. It’s literally that we often don’t know if something is in public consciousness at all when we start talking about it. Local authorities are very goldfish-bowl areas and it’s difficult to be able to tell if an issue is something ever discussed outside of council offices. Even something serious like children’s social work, like as not, if there was a major issue the average person in the street would know nothing about it, so it’s useful being able to test that public awareness initially. Then it would be about making sure that we can have a conversation which is informing and rational. What we’re often concerned about, and I’m sure this is the case for any organisation with a political focus, is that we don’t want to have an incredibly difficult conversation which throws up only opposition to every suggestion or idea, or creates turbulence,  disruption and difficulty for all of our elected members, and doesn’t actually result in any change. Sometimes what we’re doing is, in a sense, dipping our toe in the water rather than jumping in.”

“In terms of what Citizen Space is good at doing, it’s about us being able to present ideas in a safe way to people … Not creating political difficulties by having too broad a discussion, or a discussion that was too much on one specific problematic area. It’s about getting real, meaningful agreement to something. If you’re dealing with a community of interest you may find that if you start saying ‘we want to implement Policy X, that is the one we want to go for’. If 30% of your audience are still of a view that we shouldn’t implement any policy at all in that area, that’s disruptive for having a meaningful conversation about the nature of any policy should be. Splitting those two things apart, saying ‘there’s one discussion which is about whether or not we should do something, and then there’s a later discussion about the specifics of what that should be.’ So we don’t have that second set of discussions muddied by people who are trying to wreck the process. And if we’re honest that is not an uncommon thing.”

Part of the policy-making cycle

A good example of how consultation is incorporated into all stages of the policy cycle is the issue of a ‘tourist tax’. The issue became part of the policy agenda after a significant number of people spontaneously suggested it should be introduced in a consultation. Policy formulation was supported with a ‘testing-the-water’ consultation last year. That consultation – and the support from residents and tourists that it demonstrated – helped convince the Scottish Government to grant Edinburgh powers to implement a tax. Currently, the Council are working on the specifics of implementation, which will go out to consultation again later this year.

“We detected, over time, an increase in the number of people who felt that Edinburgh Festivals make Edinburgh a worse place to live. Now, that started off about 6-7 years ago when less than .5% of all residents felt that. In the most recent survey, which was Autumn 2018, it was up to 7%. Very small numbers – let’s not kid ourselves – but a growing percentage of people, and a lot of that concentrated around the areas where tourism has the biggest impact.

“Then  three years ago we had the budget engagement activity where we asked for suggestions and more than 100 people spontaneously came to us and said ‘you should introduce a tourist tax in Edinburgh’. We’d never had anything close to that before, for any issue. So we looked into it, and we found that the impact of the tourism, particularly in terms of short-term holiday lets, whilst relatively small across the whole city, was huge in some areas. You could go to a particular post code and you could find 25% of all the properties in that postcode being used for short-term lets. This is still a completely unregulated market in Scotland. The expectation of rental return for a two-bed property in the city centre could be four times higher with short-term lets than with sitting tenants, so there’s a clear financial incentive for people who are intending to use properties for short-term lets to bid more in the Scottish sale system… so all of that is our context.

“When we’d had discussions with the Scottish government previously about introducing a tourist tax, their position was very firmly no. And Edinburgh was the only local authority where tourism was any sort of bother at all. Everybody else is like, please send us your tourists! Also, Edinburgh is a lynchpin for how people travel in Scotland; almost everyone who’s visiting internationally begins and/or ends their visit to Scotland in Edinburgh. Putting people off coming to Edinburgh or making that more expensive could potentially have some big knock-on effects, so it’s not like Scottish government didn’t have a reasonable position. However, eventually we got enough support to do some specific, tailored research.

It was about us recognising that there is a problem, and then…a certain amount of political leadership; doing the initial gathering of information, and then we get to a point where we can begin to test this very controversial issue publicly.

“We found out that actually, there was support from tourists and residents for the introduction of modest charges. We consulted people about a level of charge. That was enough for us to build momentum and for Scot Gov to finally give consent for these powers to be developed, and hopefully that will happen reasonably soon. Following on from that there’ll be a second stage of consultation which will be the specific issues of how this is done. It was about us recognising that there is a problem, and then…a certain amount of political leadership; doing the initial gathering of information, and then we get to a point where we can begin to test this very controversial issue publicly. And in the case of the tourist tax what we found was that public attitude actually overtook our own.”

Using consultation in the way that they do requires striking up a delicate balance, both with external organisations like the Scottish Government, and with internal council staff. In practical terms, this means releasing consultations at the right point in the policy-making cycle.

I think there’s a perspective that local government comes to consultation with decisions already made. We open our doors to the public and inside is the finished thing and we want a big green tick. And that is generally not the case.

“I think there’s a perspective that local government comes to consultation with decisions already made. We open our doors to the public and inside is the finished thing and we want a big green tick. And that is generally not the case. But anything the public see will be the work of multiple people, multiple teams, usually months but sometimes years in planning. It is always possible to influence the outcome of a consultation, but it can be hard for officers to keep their enthusiasm for a delivering the changes,” David says, and laughs. “Everybody encounters exhaustion, and if the particular policy area is something that has been worked on in private for two years before it sees the light of day through an engagement activity, you can bet money that the officers who have had to push it that far would strongly prefer not to make any more changes to it. Timing when consultation happens is about getting something out in an unfinished-enough state that we are comfortable with people seeing it, but at the same time it’s not too worked on that people become deeply invested in it.”

Closing the feedback loop

It’s clear that citizen feedback from consultations very much informs the direction of policy-making at Edinburgh in many cases. So what’s their process of giving feedback to citizens and, to use a favourite Delib phrase, closing the loop?

“I have never encountered a point where a senior manager of the organisation has not been interested in what the public have to say about something and that’s the same for elected members. We really don’t have those entrenched positions around things people sometimes assume. Oftentimes, you will find that we will receive public feedback and even if the public feedback is ‘that seems fine’ we will look for opportunities to make changes in order to demonstrate that we have listened to people. So sometimes we go further than we need to, in order to demonstrate that we really are listening.”

“Now what we reflect back to the public, I think we could be much better on. Where we fall down almost all the time is on saying why we didn’t do things and that’s equally important. Where we’re saying ‘no’ to something, we need to say why we’re saying no to it. There are good examples of where we’ve done that, but generally speaking we don’t do enough and I don’t see that from other organisations either. I think it’s very easy, to go, ‘you said this, and aren’t we nice, we did this’. It’s tough to go back to people who have invested their time giving you a response and to say no to them specifically. There’s always the instinct to put a spin around it, and I think we need to be better at resisting that because we have a more adult conversation if sometimes we can be comfortable with the answer being no, as long as we’re able to evidence why that answer is no, rather than trying to gaslight everybody into thinking that we’ve said yes to everything.

“In the short term it doesn’t do us any good to have those difficult conversations and therefore people want to avoid having them at all. That creates pressure for us just to sell the positives of what we’ve done, but the positive is not the whole truth around it, and arguably in the long term that does undermine trust in the process.”

Consultation and policy-making are not always so closely intertwined, but local authorities are made to serve the public at the end of the day, and citizens’ views should be at the heart of every decision. It was promising to hear from a local authority that works in this way.

Keep an eye out for the third and final part of my conversation with David in the coming weeks.

If you’d like to learn more about what Citizen Space can do for your organisation, book a free demo and we’ll walk you through it.

Read part one: Education, empathy, Edinburgh: fostering understanding with Simulator