To celebrate the launch of new pamphlet ‘From Fairy tale to reality’ I’m writing ‘Facilitation Fables’ every Friday throughout February (I’ve already done fable number one, fable number two and fable number three). In this fourth instalment I look at a fable where I think good engagement could have changed the end result. The fable for this week is ‘The Fox and the Stork’:
The Fox and the Stork
A Fox invited a Stork to dinner, at which the only fare provided was a large flat dish of soup. The Fox lapped it up with great relish, but the Stork with her long bill tried in vain to partake of the savoury broth. Her evident distress caused the sly Fox much amusement. But not long after the Stork invited him in turn, and set before him a pitcher with a long and narrow neck, into which she could get her bill with ease. Thus, while she enjoyed her dinner, the Fox sat by hungry and helpless, for it was impossible for him to reach the tempting contents of the vessel.
A number of fables deal with the negative impact of conflict. The petty tit for tat vindictiveness of the Fox and the Stork is laughable. In other fables the conflict is not quite so harmless. For example in the fable of the Eagle and the Fox the two animals end up eating each other’s offspring. We have probably all seen situations where organizations, communities and families are torn apart by conflict. Conflict comes at a high price, it leads to spiteful behaviour and ‘lose-lose’ outcomes which often get worse over time.
Luckily there are a number of approaches to overcome conflict. So how could this all have been solved? Here’s a rewrite:
The conflict between the Fox and the Stork got worse and worse. The Fox played loud music to keep the Stork up late at night; the Stork retaliated by spreading malicious rumours about the Fox. Before long both animals had competing law suits against the other and the whole neighbourhood was choosing sides. All of this conflict and commotion was noticed by the humble Tortoise (this happened at a time before his successful career as a racer). The Tortoise knew that something had to be done and tried to get the Fox and the Stork to talk to each other, but both refused. “He has to apologise to me first” said the Fox. “He’s the one with the problem, not me” said the Stork. The Tortoise was a trained facilitator and came up with a plan.
He knew that it was a long term plan. He spoke to the Fox and Stork’s close friends to reach out to the two angry animals. The friends of the Stork and the Fox managed to convince them to meet with the Tortoise individually. The Tortoise sat over numerous sessions and listened to the concerns and the worldviews of the two animals. After a number of sessions the Fox and the Stork agreed to meet together. The first meeting was tense, with lawyers in the room and both combatants threatening to walk out. The Tortoise had to set up some very strict ground rules, including rules about not interrupting and using positive language. They did a number of exercises of listening to each other and trying to see the situation from the perspective of the other person but little progress was made. Both the Fox and the Stork complained bitterly about how the Tortoise was wasting their time. “Fantastic” said the Tortoise “I’d like you both to write a joint list about things that you are unhappy about how I’ve run the process so far”. The Fox and the Stork worked together on the list and after this the conversation flowed a little easier. They began to find areas where they agreed.
The next meeting they dispensed with the lawyers and instead met in a more relaxed setting. As more and more common ground opened up the Stork exclaimed “You seem really nice Mr Fox, I don’t understand why you’ve been playing rude pranks on me ever since you met me?”. “That’s how foxes show people that they like them Mr Stork. What’s rude is your unwillingness to complement me on my pranks.” The two animals began to realise that while they would perhaps never share the same values they could at least understand each other.
The Tortoise suggested that the two animals agree to work together on a project that was important to both of them and the Fox and Stork decided to clean up a local park. At the end they shook hands. “I think I misunderstood you Mr Fox. I’ll never understand why you insist on playing silly pranks, but at least now I know that you don’t mean any ill will.” “And I’ll never understand how you can stand being so stiff necked and humourless, but I know your heart is in the right place.”
Two weeks later, to celebrate the fact that the two animals had agreed to be friends, the Tortoise organised a banquet dinner. The waiter approached the table and asked “Would you like Soup for your starter?” As one the Fox, the Stork and the Tortoise responded “Absolutely not!” and laughed.
Facilitation has a number of key techniques for overcoming conflict, including ground rules, dialogue and mediation. We know how to frame conversations positively and work on uncovering areas of consensus, even in cases of extremely deep seated anger and conflict. Clearly these techniques were not always available in Aesop’s time.
I hope you enjoyed this fourth instalment of Facilitation fables. Next week we will finally launch our new publication. This series of interlinked posts has been a departure for me and for Involve. If you liked it let me know and I’ll think about if there is merit in doing something similar in the future.
The final entry of a three part series, Edward provides a selection of some of the best ‘how to’ guides on engagement and consultation. How To Consult –Great Guides
In two preceding posts I’ve looked at the initial reactions to the Cabinet Office’s new Consultation principles as well as Involve’s take on the new guidance.
Since the new principles are very up front about not being ‘How to’ guidance (they outline the importance of listening to the public but do not tell you how to do it) I thought it would be best if I flag up my pick of the best practical resources for civil servants interested in engagement and consultation. Of course this list of good guides is only indicative; if you know of additional guidance on consultation and engagement please comment below.
A good place to start
I thought I’d start with our new Participation Compass website which was developed in collaboration with the Bertelsmann Foundation. The site contains descriptions of over 30 methods and cases of participation, and links to loads and loads of participatory resources. Participation Compass will contain all the best bits from People and Participation (Our previous and now out of use best practice site) with an interface for a new decade. Participation Compass will even have an App for those of you who need participation information on the go! You can find the original paper publication on which the site is based here: http://www.involve.org.uk/people-and-participation/
Principles for Consultation
Involve developed 9 principles of deliberation (PDF document) with the National Consumer Council a while back; it is a vital resource for understanding the difference between deliberative and other forms of consultation.
The Consultation Institute has developed its Consultation Charter which provides outline good practice principles. These are good resources, but still only provide outline ideas and support. For more detailed support you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Broadening your outlook
A common mistake people make in England is to neglect the great work done in the other parts of the UK. I’ve already mentioned these great Participation Principles from Participation Cymru in Wales.
Communities Scotland have also developed useful National Standards for Community Engagement.
Another useful Scottish resource is this recent toolkit from the Scottish Health Council with a good overview of methods.
For those with an interest in International good practice, the OECD have produced “Citizens as Partners” (PDF document) a Handbook on consultation and engagement.
In my view, Annette Zera has created one of the best practical introductions to creative ways to run meetings. “Getting on Brilliantly” used to be a resource you had to pay for but now it is available for free here and everyone who has to run or design meetings should read it.
Dialogue by Design has produced this “Dialogue Designer” which contains a lot of practical information along with guidance on selecting a good method for your consultation.
For those looking to expand their range of methods Involve’s Not another consultation! Document provides information on how to run events that combine the informality of community fun days with meaningful engagement methods.
For those interested in consulting online there are a number of guides.
One of the best recent ones is The Digital Engagement Guide, developed by Helpful Technology.
New Zealand also has a wealth of experience in online engagement, some of which can be accessed in this guide.
And here is an older, but beautifully designed guide: eDemocracy in Bristol Guide (PDF document).
Guides to Evaluating consultation
RCUK have prepared guidance on how to evaluate public engagement: http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/media/news/2005news/Pages/050323.aspx
Involve also prepared guidelines with Diane Warburton: Making a Difference
Other useful guides
For those civil servants wrestling with the difficult choice of whether or not to pay people to participate, this resource looks at the issue of paying participants.
I’d also like to flag up an American resource (PDF document) which is useful for deliberative approaches.
The National Empowerment Partnership microsite contains numerous briefing papers on engaging with older people, minorities and rural populations.
The former Improvement and Development Agency developed a number of useful guides over the years, including “The ideal empowering authority: an illustrated framework (PDF document)” and “Community Engagement and Empowerment: A Guide for Councillors.” (PDF document)
For those with an interest in Planning the RTPI “Guidelines on Effective Community Involvement and Consultation Good Practice” (PDF document) may be of interest.
The Sciencewise programme has published A “Departmental Dialogue Index” (PDF document) which allows Central Government teams to assess themselves and their Departments to see how they could improve their engagement and consultation.
And finally saving one of the best ones for last Participedia provides a range of in depth information on methods and case studies. The team is led by Academics from Harvard and the quality of information on the site is very high.
The web is awash with good guides to consultation and engagement. Despite this, much consultation misses the mark today. Citizens I speak to about consultation are generally cynical about the very activities that Government undertakes to reduce apathy and disengagement. Clearly the new Consultation principles are important; but they can only be a small part of the solution. We need to increase knowledge and skills, both amongst civil servants, but also amongst stakeholders and citizens.
I’ve shared some of the tools I’ve found valuable through the years. Now I’d be interested to hear which tools you can’t do without? Comment below!
In the second of a three part series about the new Government Consultation Principles, Edward Andersson writes about Involve’s reaction to these new principles. In my previous post I looked at initial reactions to the Cabinet Office’s new Consultation Principles. In this post I will provide some Involve commentary.
Like many other guidance rewrites under the current government the new Consultation Principles are much shorter than the document they replace (See for example the debate around the Best Value Guidance and Duty to Involve). The Consultation Principles are three pages long; they replace a code of conduct (PDF document) which ran to thirteen pages. So on the count of saving on paper and printing costs the new Principles are an improvement. What of the content –what have they had to cut out in order to shorten the document?
The principles contain important guidance that Involve and many others have called for over the years; including a focus on real engagement and not tokenism, an acknowledgement that consultation is not always appropriate and an expectation that consultation will be done early and in a proportionate manner. This marks a move away from a more rigid ‘one size fits all’ approach –an approach which has led to a spree of court cases in recent years.
One of the most controversial changes is that the new principles do away with the ’12 week rule’ which previously stated that “Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible”. The new statement says timeframes should be “proportionate and realistic” and might “typically vary between two and 12 weeks”.
The problem with the old definition was that Civil Servants became hung up on the 12 weeks as an absolute law. The new version does away with some of the rigidity but insidiously 12 weeks has ceased to be a minimum and will now be perceived by many to be a maximum. It is true that there are many cases where a shorter consultation process is possible –but for 2 weeks to be a meaningful consultation period there has to have been substantial engagement in advance and the stakeholders need heads up as to when to expect the consultation.
Worryingly I think many civil servants will not read it this way. A strong argument for the 12 week minimum rule previously was that membership groups need time to consult with their local branches and members before submitting a formal response. A shorter period is likely to lead to more rushed and less considered responses.
I like where the principles place their emphasis: tailoring the consultation to the relevant participants and issues, providing easy to understand information, making sure that departments make clear how previous feedback taken into consideration, the importance of clear objectives and cross- departmental collaboration.
I can see where the principles have come from –consultation is often done as a tick box exercise, following a formalistic process, for unclear reasons and with little feedback. The two and a half year Pathways through Participation research project interviewed over 100 citizens and we did not find one of them who had a positive experience of formal consultation. Clearly there are massive problems with consultation today, not least that it leaves citizens cynical, angry and disempowered. The new principles may play a role in responding to this.
However in cutting ten pages from the guidance the new Principles have missed off some important things that were covered in the Old Code of Conduct. A key thing that is missing is definitions of consultation, engagement and other terms.
The document is very up front about not being a ‘how to’ guide. The brevity does mean that it does little to define terms. The statement “Consultation is part of wider engagement” is true but without explanation and backing information the advice may go unheeded.
The New Consultation Principles also do not mention the importance of deliberative dialogue when engaging on complicated issues. Given the good work done by Sciencewise and other parts of Government with these types of methods it seems a shame that civil servants looking for advice on how to consult aren’t signposted.
On a very fundamental level a key problem with the principles is that they solely focus on consultation and fail to encourage or support civil servants who want to engage citizens in decisions at an earlier stage or where civil servants might wish to devolve power to citizens directly.
The Consultation principles are not very inspiring and there is a risk they will encourage more of the same from government.
There are two areas where the Code of Conduct on Consultation provided structure which the new Principles do not mention. The Code required each consultation to provide a standard table of basic information so that citizens and stakeholders could quickly see if the consultation was relevant to them. Under the Code each department also had to appoint a Consultation Coordinator who would provide advice on how to consult as well as coordinating the consultation across the departments. I’d be interested to hear from Civil servants and those who responded to many consultations –have you found the Consultation Coordinators and standard table of basic information useful? Will you miss them or are they just another bureaucratic add on?
Since the new principles for all their virtues do not tell civil servant HOW to engage and consult I thought that I’d list some of the best ‘how to’ guides out there next week. If you have suggestions for guide guidance on consultation and engagement please comment below.
In the first of a series of three Blog posts about the new UK Government Consultation Principles Edward Andersson looks at the initial reactions from the engagement community.
The Cabinet Office launched their new Consultation Principles on the 17 of July (Which replaced the old Code of Conduct for Consultation) while I was on holiday and it has taken a few weeks for me to find the time to write about the changes. In this first blog post about the principles I’ll look at stakeholder reactions. A second blog post will provide some Involve commentary and a final post will provide links to further guidance to support civil servants.
The Principles received a mixed reception. They were welcomed by The Consultation Institute who said it would help make consultation “fit for purpose and not unnecessarily onerous”.
Online Engagement expert Steph Gray was cautiously optimistic but worried that civil servants might choose a simplistic interpretation that minimized their interaction with the public and stakeholders. He also said “‘digital by default’ is at risk of becoming a weasel phrase akin to ‘evidence based policymaking’ or ‘social marketing’ which can be met with a nod to a SurveyMonkey response form or a tweeted launch.” He also mentioned the excellent Participation Principles written by Participation Cymru for the Welsh Government.
“Compact Voice” was critical of the new principles and felt they might prevent organisations from responding or engaging with policy decisions which affect them and Chris Whitehouse characterized the new principles as “an incredibly arbitrary system that will result in too little time being given to consultations on key policies and will severely limit the opportunities charities have to engage in public policy development”.
In our next blog post I will provide some Involve commentary on the new Principles.
Edward Andersson discusses what digital technology means for engagement and what the strengths and weaknesses are of engaging online. A week ago I gave a talk at Government Digital Services on Digital and face to face engagement. This post is a summary of what I said.
First of all I acknowledge that Involve is different from many others in the digital engagement field; we’re not software producers, we’re not trying to sell software and we focus on engagement as whole rather than digital engagement. Our mission is to make the public sector into better commissioners of dialogue and engagement. I’ll start with the question to what degree digital technology represents a breakthrough?
Two quotes illustrate how differently new technology is interpreted:
“The world is poised on the cusp of an economic and cultural shift as dramatic as that of the Industrial Revolution.”
Steven Levy (Wired journalist)
“The Internet is a telephone system that’s gotten uppity.”
Clifford Stoll (US Author and astronomer)
My view is that both quotes are true, in their own ways. We tend to overestimate changes in the short term (where many people hype up relatively mundane technologies) and underestimate the shifts in the longer term.
There is a tendency among consultants to create artificial distinctions between digital/online engagement and face to face engagement. Human nature is the same in both settings and of course a badly designed online consultation without a clear purpose is just as much a waste of time as a face to face process without a purpose.
I think people get excited about digital for the wrong reasons.
People often think that the key defining characteristics of digital are:
Speed –The internet is making things go faster, but the obvious question is ‘so what?’. The really big qualitative differences in terms of speed of sending messages happened in the 1860s. Nowadays the speed of communication is already faster than human beings can react to.
Scale –The internet does allow a larger number of people to take part than was possible before. It is a great thing but it can also lead people to focus too much on the number of people taking part. Many of the websites or articles which have attracted the most number of hits do so for the wrong reasons; scandals are great for hit rates but not for much else.
Cost–The Internet does have the possibility of reducing the costs of engagement; while this is true it is often oversold by consultants.
There are also very good reasons for shifting to Digital which are often overlooked:
Enabling -Digital technologies allows the third sector and individuals to self-organise and do things that in the past the council would have to do. This opens up tremendous opportunities (if we are willing to give up some control).
Networking –the Internet opens up possibilities of networking people who wouldn’t normally meet, for reasons of time, space and who they are.
Flexible -finally the nature of digital information allows comparison, aggregation, mashing up data, and ability to make it easily accessible. And to make lots of different sorts of outputs which would not be possible using pen and paper.
There are of course areas were online engagement doesn’t work as well as face to face, for example:
But of course it is not an either/or. In many cases face to face and online complement each other; and of course let’s not forget that digital technology can be used in face to face meetings as well.
Adding digital technology to face to face engagement allows:
The award winning Geraldton 2029 process in Western Australia has made use of a wide array of face to face and digital processes in determining the future of the town. 4000 people have been actively involved through world cafés, online surveys, online moderated deliberation, 21st century town hall meetings™, community events to celebrate milestones including BBQs. They have also used the local Newspaper facebook page heavily. What I like about the Geraldton process is how they have understood the strengths of face to face and online and worked with both.
- The Crowdsourced Icelandic constitution has been in the news a lot over the last few months. The Constitutional council has drafted and posted clauses each week open for public comment, and has live streamed their proceedings. The focus has often been on the online elements but it was made possible by in depth face to face deliberation, both from the elected Constitutional Council and a randomly selected national forum.
So to sum up my key points from my presentation:
Happy New Year! I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on where we are heading and what we might see in the next 12 months. 2012 as a year has been associated with all kinds of vague and misleading theories about Maya prophesies of impending apocalypse. Even though we are unlikely to see the end of the world, 2012 is still very likely to be challenging.
Take my predictions with a pinch of salt. As Niels Bohr quipped: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. It is humbling to remember that in 1962 the Decca Recording Company rejected the Beatles because “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”. Let’s hope that my predictions are more successful.
Turbulence is almost a given; it is instructive to reflect on where we were a year ago. None of the big events of 2011 were ones that we could have predicted. The Arab Spring has toppled seemingly unmovable dictatorships, seemingly calm streets in England erupted in riots and City centres of financial capitals around the world are occupied by disparate and angry protestors. What we expect of democracy is likely to be in transition. One thing is sure for 2012 –we’re bound to be surprised.
Another prediction is we are likely to see frustrations with democratic decision making spill into violence in parts of the world. For states in Middle East and elsewhere the coming year will be dangerous (as recent clashes in Tripoli and Cairo shows). Dictatorships seem to be less dangerous than the transition period to democracy and there is plenty that can go wrong. On a lesser scale communities in the UK and the rest of Europe are experiencing similar transitions and the corresponding risk of violence.
We are also likely to see increased non-violent conflict -2011 has seen a record number of court cases around engagement and consultation, from the Royal Brompton Hospital to London Councils. This is a development I view with unease. Judges are in no way equipped to rate the quality of consultations. It is also likely to encourage Councils to take a ‘back covering’ strategy, rather than focussing on a genuine conversation. We’re likely to see more court cases, and more conflict about engagement, consultation and the big society.
The economy will continue to be a problem. With fewer staff on hand the need to build skills in conflict resolution and facilitation will become acute in many areas. Funding engagement work with clear links to efficiencies and savings won’t be a problem; funding work which makes economic sense over the longer term and where investment is needed will.
Politicians will still mention and support engagement, at least on paper. There seems to be cross party agreement that politics is broken. Expect at least a few high profile initiatives around this topic launched by politicians.
Innovation. The flip side of all this turbulence is that there is a willingness to challenge old ways of working. We’ve seen Councils willing to embrace new ways of working, for example through the NESTA Creative Councils programme (which we are assisting on). Involve and RSA will shortly publish a pamphlet looking at examples of Radical Engagement –genuinely different approaches to citizen influence and we hope we’ll see many more new examples in the year to come.
2012 probably won’t bring a Maya Apocalypse. It will however be a year to remember; difficult but ultimately worthwhile.
So what about New Year’s Resolutions? For myself as a democracy practitioner I’ll suggest the following:
Many people working in consultation have noted that those who are happy with a proposal are much less likely to make a submission than those who are negatively impacted. It is far easier to get a petition going opposing a development than it is supporting one and most referendums end up supporting the status quo for similar reasons. So if consultations don’t give a complete indication of how the community feels about the issue, they are disempowering the silent majority.
I vividly remember an example where a Councillor faced vocal opposition from constituents to a new super market development and as a result voted against it. At the time it seemed only a handful of residents were for it. However at election time when the Councillor went round door knocking, a considerable number of people were wondering what happened to the super market. Those who actually supported the development were not noticed because they lived further from the development, were less educated and poorer than the vocal opponents, and as a result they were not heard in the traditional consultation.
Given this ‘response bias’ in consultation someone recently suggested to me that consultation submissions could be weighted in some way to account for the over representation of negative views. I think there are many reasons why this is a dangerous route to take.
In my experience consultations are rarely just about the numbers of responses received. Consultations are about exploring ideas, concerns and unintended consequences of a proposed policy – it is not a vote. Indeed, one of the most important roles of the organiser is to make it clear that consultations are not referendums. Consultations can gather better information about what local people think as well as increase understanding of the likely impacts of the policy. In the latter case a single response providing a vital and overlooked piece of information may carry more weight than thousands of identical template responses.
Weighting can fill a vital role in quantitative consultation in order to balance different demographics response rates, to compensate for lacking recruitment – for example if fewer women than men respond (but only if there is a large enough sample size to begin with). Weighting works for quantitative engagement but not for qualitative responses. However if it is done, it must be done transparently and in a considered way.
Weighting is also useful where the impact of a policy on certain groups is more important than views from the overall population. For example, when consulting on young people’s services it may make sense to weight the responses from young people higher than those from adults. The responses from adults should not be dismissed outright however, as it is possible that some youth activities will have negative or positive impacts on the rest of the population.
While there is some guidance on analysing the answers to consultations it is hard to give clear rules in advance on how to deal with the complexities of consultations. Analysing consultations is an art and not a science. Each contribution has to be assessed based on:
Is weighting the responses the way to deal with this?
Weighting responses that are negative towards a government proposal would (rightly) be seen as undemocratic, unfair and as a manipulative way to skew the debate.
So what should we do?
The Councillor I mentioned earlier found that ward walks helped him to reach out to the silent majority who would not respond on their own. If you suspect that there is a large silent majority try to get their responses through methods such as door knocking, peer interviews, informal engagement or demographically sampled surveys, methods which get views from of the silent voices. Involve have produced a few useful guides to informal engagement that you might find useful in doing so: Not another Consultation and Say & Play.
The problem is that we have an imbalance in the supply of consultation responses. Rather than devaluing some responses to account for the imbalance, the solution is to gather balancing views. The job of the consultation professional is to ensure a level playing field and to seek out the quiet ‘easy to overlook’ voices. In short, amplify the quiet voices rather than trying to muffle the loud ones!
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.