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Getting the results you need from discussion and consultation

27/09/2011

I was helping out at some District Council focus groups this week and watched a couple of facilitators in action who made me think that consultation in our ‘Big Society’ is changing.

For a start, no Council, public body, charity or commercial enterprise, for that matter, can afford to become embroiled in pointless talking shops where no tangible and relevant progress is made.

I believe this means organisations that make decisions by vast committees simply won’t make them often enough or with sufficient focus for their implementation to be effective.

But organisations still need to consult with stakeholders, particularly if those stakeholders are also constituents, beneficiaries or customers.  If Big Society means all of us taking a little more responsibility for ourselves and our immediate environments then the process of consultation needs to change as well to ensure that it moves swiftly enough to meet the timescales of the non-governmental world but still makes sure people are given sufficient opportunity to contribute.

I think the facilitators I watched engaged their audiences well in this regard and I’ve tried to distil below the most effective things they did, which may help others:

  • Make the process about actions, not consultation from the start and right the way through to follow-up activity.  The team started with actions to consider, not high-level concepts and strategies.  Therefore the only things that were debated were the actions, their ramifications, resource implications and alternative actions.  This set the right tone and engaged everyone in the process of moving forwards (as well as improving perceptions of the Council in question).
  • If possible, pick a venue that reflects the subject under discussion and encourages people to be creative, open-minded and relaxed.  This isn’t always easy but the difference in outcomes from the groups I saw discussing exactly the same subject was marked.  Those meeting in the Council Board room were less positive and less committed to taking responsibility for the resultant actions.
  • Evidence the benefits of action/the project or programme in the audience’s terms.  What needs will it meet, what positive impact will it have on their everyday lives?  Overlay where these needs meet the organisation’s needs and you have a reason for working together to find a solution.
  • Remember, discussing and creating incremental plans and actions are more likely to be successful than grand strategies.  This was very clear as many constituent audiences are too closely wedded to their own needs and circumstances to be able to view an issue at the level a Council or other large organisation has to.  The team shared strategic aims but broke them down into key, manageable deliverables.
  • Make people accountable for their decisions and the resultant actions.  Perceptions of consultation historically have been about audiences sharing their opinions with some other body and walking away, expecting them to deliver.  Big Society is about personal responsibility so a key question during these sessions was around who would be responsible for delivery.  This shouldn’t be about volunteering specific individuals but it is about making accountabilities clear for organisations or teams – nothing brings a project to life like an action next to your name!
  • Keep momentum going.  The follow-up to these sessions will be formalised in terms of transcripts and actions distributed to all relevant parties.  This includes a period of time for people to reflect on the priorities agreed and on accountabilities discussed before being implemented.
  • Think widely about who to involve.  It was clear that the team had been very open in terms of stakeholder groups which added real value to the resultant action plans.  I’ve been involved with lots of organisations which had very specific views of their target audiences and widening the scope of any consultation to include indirectly affected audiences can lead to some real clarity in terms of what actions impact on the broadest audiences and in what ways.
  • Lastly, make sure you have the right people facilitating these sessions.  That doesn’t mean you need to hire consultants but it does mean you need people who can steer and encourage discussion whilst maintain sharp focus on the desired outcomes.  Think part referee, part listener, part creative thinker and part teacher; all without any perceived political or vested interest in the outcomes as far as the audience is concerned.
How does your organisation ensure you get the actions you need from discussion and consultations?
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