We Stakeholder Engagement practitioners are nothing short of evangelical in our zeal to sing the praises and benefits of consultation/engagement. So much so that I sometimes wonder if we should just go ahead and form our own religion and get some tax free status advantages! But is good pulbic consultation always the right answer, to every question? In which situations would we advise clients/decision makers that it is not a good idea to consult?
Here are five situations where I think it would be advisable NOT to consult, or at the very least to substantially re-think your approach to the public consultation process.
1. The decision has already been made
In these times of easy access to information, it would be foolhardy to consult on options when it is a badly kept secret that the decision has already been made. Early in my career as a stakeholder engagement consultant, this was a situation we encountered all too often. Particularly on infrastructure projects. The client and technical specialists had already chosen their preferred route/option and expected us poor bunnies to go through the steps of running consultation for an environmental assessment process that was flawed from the outset. I'd like to think that this happens less these days with greater access to information and more sophistication in how community groups operate.
2. There's no opportunity for the community to influence the decision
Okay so the decision may not have already been made per se, but there is very limited opportunity for the community to influence much in the decision. As the consultation manager you don't want to be the stooge creating unrealistic expectations of what the process could achieve. You need to be able to clearly articulate what the community can influence through their participation in your process.
3. You're not prepared or quite sure why you are consulting
This may sound ridiculous on first read, but bear with me. We encounter so many projects where there isn't any clarity around what people are being consulted on, or why. Not even at the end of the process when the results of the consultation are being written up. Either senior management is not providing any direction on what they are wanting to consult the public on, or how they plan to use the feedback, or they keep changing their minds in a way that totally destablises the entire process. We often encounter this situation in cases where there is a statutory requirement to consult and some organisations just "go through the motions" of consulting because they are required to do so.
4. Overshadowed by bigger events
If larger events (such as natural disasters or a controverisal topic generating a lot of interest) are unfolding in the community around you, people are not going to want to engage with you on your project. Chances are that you will be seen as insensitive and generate anger within the community.
5. Low trust environment
If there is a history of poor past experiences and a low trust environment between the project proponent and the community, it's unlikely that you can engage in meaningful dialogue without some prior remedial action. Just launching a fancy new engagement process or consultation tool at the community is unlikely to succeed.
There are times when it makes more sense not to consult. If you face one of the situations listed above, all is not lost. You need to review your approach and adjust your plans accordingly. Have a look at our free e-book on planning successful consulations for some tips on what you could do.