Running Consultative Processes  

Whether it is a political decision, a Government decision, a business decision or a decision by a community organisation, one of the biggest complaints by those  affected often comes down to the fact that they were not consulted and had no chance to have their input.

For Community Leaders, it is a delicate process to run the fine line between ensuring there is adequate and good quality consultation that does seek out all the relevant information, views and concerns on which balanced, informed decisions can be made but that the process doesn't get bogged down and lead to a situation where there is plenty of consultation but no decision-making.

Community Leaders are elected to lead. But they are also elected to represent the views of their constituents and to act in their best interests and that means communicating with their members or the local community in which they operate.

Running a genuine consultative process is often more work initially.   Unless you're rescuing someone from drowning or playing squash, however, you are going to want not simply instant gratification but also sustainable outcomes.  The chances of enacting the changes you want, or achieving your goals in the community, are going to be improved if the relevant stakeholders (and as many other interested people as possible) have been consulted or involved in the decision-making process. It is only where the community feels empowered or has ownership of the changes is it likely to succeed.

This is true on both the small and the large scale. The United Nations, the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Bank all use consultative processes to reach major decisions. Similarly, your local tennis club consults the public when it seeks the support of its neighbours to have lights installed for night tennis or in assessing the public demand for programs such as tennis for people with disabilities, tennis for seniors or tennis for juniors.

Just as it does not make sense to initiate a youth program without youth involvement, it does not make sense to make major decisions for a community without consulting the people who make up that community.

When do you consult?

In general terms, the larger the decision, the greater the need for consultation (and where there's any doubt which end of the spectrum you are then it's better to err on the side of consultation).  It's particularly important
  • When major decisions need to be embraced by a particular community.
  • When consultation is required by law (getting a building permits, for example, getting a liquor licence, changing your hours of operation)
  • When the aim is to educate or change behaviour
  • When you need public support to carry it through
  • When you are seeking different opinions and collective input to reach an effective solution
  • When you want to motivate people and inspire action
  • When you want other groups or organisations in the community to take up or back your position 
Basically, you should consult whenever you are taking a decision that is likely to impact on other people.  

How do you do this effectively?

Before you embark on a consultative process you need to have
  • an idea of the scale of the project (what resources and how much time have you set aside to do this?)
  • clearly stated aims and objectives for the consultation (what do you need to know?  What (and whom) do you need to ask to find this out?)
  • a genuine desire to learn from the process so that you can address any concerns, take into account any constructive suggestions and improve any weaknesses in your argument, plan or position.
These factors will determine everything else -- how widely you will consult, who you will consult, why you need to consult and the time frame in which you wish to work.
The consultation process can range from a single and simple meeting with relevant stakeholders to a more complex process to a long-term on-going consultative process involving more time, careful preparation, and a way of dealing with many conflicting views.

The process of consultation requires a series of decision procedures.
  • Appoint a co-ordinator
  • Decide how often you will consult various interest groups/interested parties.
  • Determine the resources that will be required to undertake the process
  • Set a timeline for when you hope to achieve certain results
  • Consider all methods of consultation: private/closed meetings, public meetings, online surveys, telephone surveys, interviews, focus groups.
  • Identify and contact stakeholders and interest groups.
  • Establish relationships with stakeholders
  • Ensure you have a process to deal with various opinions so you will be able to reach agreement.
  • Ensure there is a central contact person to answer enquiries.
  • Ensure there is follow up after any consultation and that those who participate know where to access final results/findings
It is a good idea to look around for community activists or community members who have been involved with managing a consultative process or community mobilisation project before. They have great networks and can offer valuable advice.

Don't forget to research your issue

No matter what the issue and no matter how original you think your initiative is, there is usually a chance that someone, somewhere has tried it (or something similar)  before - so before you engage in consultation look at some of the issues, concerns and challenges faced in other areas. This is likely to provide valuable clues as to community opinion, or might give you an insight into the issue itself and how it has played out in the past.

How much consultation is too much?

Assessments, consultation and inquiries are all essential, but at some point, of course, there will need to be outcomes.  Decisions will have to be reached, actions taken, and progress made. These decisions should arise from the consultative process.  If consultation leads to prolonged discussion without resolution or consensus then this means that the process has broken down.The whole political process is a complicated procedure for taking major decisions that tries to strike a balance between community involvement and decisive action.  It is impossible to consult everyone on every decision, which is why we democratically elect people to make many of those decisions.  Many people are, of course, extremely dissatisfied with the present political system, but few of the suggestions for reform that have been made from time to time have been able to persuade the public.  At your level, however, you don't have the luxury of legislative backing.  

Learn from the history of political thought the importance of 
  • Using a method of appointment to the decision-making level that people accept as legitimate
  • Developing decision procedures (consensus?  voting? facilitation?) to ensure that discussion cannot drag on forever
  • Developing clear guidelines around your timetable and ensuring that your consultations work within these

What if they say the wrong thing?

For people to embrace change and new decisions, it helps if they have had the opportunity to be involved in the process.  For you to get the most from the consultation process, it helps if you have been willing to listen with a sincere wish to listen, to learn, and to share. This process is not necessarily painless.  

However good your initial idea, the consultation process might end up in your proposal being changed, improved, enhanced, diluted in some way to take in the suggested changes and to to provide the ability for a wider part of the community to have some ownership over the concept. Or maybe it stays the same and there are refinements in the implementation which arise out of consultation.

The process of empowering the community necessarily involves having less power yourself.  If you go into a consultation procedure in good faith (and it's pretty much a waste of time to do anything else) then you are saying that you are prepared to compromise or take on board legitimate suggestions and concerns. If the consultation shows definitively that the community does not want what you're offering, think long and hard before proceeding down a track that doesn't have any wider community support

How can I use consultation to build my organisation?

The plus about the consultation process is that the work you have put in to make sure that the community supports your project  is also an advantage in applying for grants and raising funds.  Grantmakers want to know that you have the support of the community; a consultative process provides absolute assurance that anybody who needed to be heard has been heard.  

People you come into contact with during the consultation process are also good prospects for recruitment as members or sympathisers. Take the opportunity to build your own networks.