We wanted to share this excellent piece by Rhion Jones of the Consultation Institute, in response to the recent Referendum. Those of you who are already members of the Institute will have seen this in the form of a fortnightly Tuesday Topic.

Should we ask the question? – What can we learn from the EU Referendum?

We have always regarded a referendum as a form of a consultation – and the recent EU referendum has illustrated many of the pitfalls familiar to public engagement practitioners. The in/out question has many critics – unsurprisingly mostly from the losing side. But experts have known for years that asking people a binary question is crude, and that is why they are often described as a consultative referendum, enabling whatever body has the power, to take the final decision.

The idea is that because a simple question can mask a lot of extraneous issues and because referendums can sometimes attract low turnouts, it might be prudent to build into the process an opportunity to think again. In other words, it obliges those who initiate the exercise in the first place to consider whether it is a consultative or a decision-making process.

Sounds familiar? The world of public consultation is full of situations where there is quite an argument as to whether there is any purpose in asking for people’s views. One is reminded of the old adage among barristers that you never ask a question of a witness in Court without knowing exactly what he or she might say! Those of us who are committed to genuine consultation regard that as completely cynical and unacceptable. We recognise that there are times when a more extended debate and a better understanding of stakeholder views can help us make better decisions. On countless occasions there are several ways forward. Policy-makers know this so well; local Councillors know it; managers in the NHS know this. In fact, in a mature democracy almost anyone who has power or control over anything substantial knows that they constantly have to make choices. The consultation culture didn’t happen because some academic recommended it. It came about because, being wise Managers or politicians, we found it was a better way of taking decisions.

That logic suggests we only consult when we think we should. Two things complicate that theory. One is that Parliament (or international obligations) has instructed that in certain circumstances we must consult – whether we like it or not, and regardless of whether we think it might be helpful to our decision-making. Secondly, there are public or stakeholder expectations. This is a feeling that unless the public, or those affected by a decision get an opportunity to give their views – it would be unfair. Sometimes this can be judicially enforced, and is called the doctrine of legitimate expectation. But sometimes it is a political expectation, and it was of course a political judgement call by this Government to instigate the EU referendum because it sensed a groundswell of opinion that wanted a say on this matter. Ideally all three considerations apply. The local authority that wants to build lots of houses knows that local people should be heard, has Planning laws obliging them to consult, and in any case feel they should seek public involvement so that the decision is a better one. Problems arise when only one or two of these factors are present.

The Referendum aftermath tells us four things:

1. No-one can now doubt there was a substantial expectation for a test of public support. As in the Scottish Referendum, the degree of public interest has been huge with families that have never discussed politics fiercely arguing about the EU. Even those who rightly complain that it has been a nasty and divisive campaign have to admit that the British public has never been so overwhelmingly engaged.

2. The result and aftermath confirms again how impossible it is to ask a single, seemingly simple question without voters using the occasion to say or demand something entirely different. As in so many consultations, once you begin a debate, it is almost impossible to draw boundaries around it and declare certain issues outside its scope.

3. Whatever information is published, there will always be those who claim it was not enough, not clear, not accurate or not properly understood. Usually these are the ones who disliked the decision, and once in a while there is enough evidence that people were significantly misled, and that it might have made a difference. That’s a rare occasion though.

4. Maybe there had not been enough discussion about the procedural aftermath of the exercise. Would the vote effectively trigger an immediate action, or did Parliament need to endorse it? Was this a consultative or a decision-making Referendum?

All four lessons also apply to smaller scale consultations, and should influence our approach to them. Far too many consultations are given inadequate attention by the most senior management. They are mass-produced to a formula and many seem deliberately designed to avoid stirring up too much of a debate. The positive experience of the Referendum is that it proves to be an outlet for the expression of opinions by many who do not find the traditional mechanisms of politics useful or credible. Finding ways to engage with more people has to be good for our overall democracy. The other learning point is that every exercise – from a local listening project right up to the most epoch-creating national Referendum of the lot – have to be prepared so carefully. With hindsight it is possible to see what may have gone right or wrong, and we may all be prone to a little bias according to whether we were delighted or dismayed by its result.

For those of us in the profession of consultation and engagement, there is much to learn and so much we can apply on a day-to-day basis.

Re-produced by kind permission of Rhion Jones, Programme Director, The Consultation Institute

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