What is consultation actually all about?

I think it fair to say that the public sector is generally poor at genuine consultation (partly because proper consultation costs too much) and it often is simply engaged in what is no more than information sharing (telling folks what is going to be done) and box ticking. So telling folk what is going to be done to their community, neighbourhood etc. is often dressed up as ‘consultation’ when in reality the comments made may well be (politely) ignored/rejected.

I recall a ‘consultation’ event being held at Maghull Town Hall a few years back about the then proposed building of what is now the newish Maghull North Station. That consultation was, at face Value, useful but I got the distinct impression that there were always going to be good reasons not to take forward suggestions which were made by attendees at that event. I blogged about it at the time – see link below:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2015/12/14/maghull-consultation-response-on-towns-2nd-and-new-railway-station/

My somewhat cynical response was ‘and it does make you wonder whether Merseytravel and their partners (Network Rail & Merseyrail) really do want to hear alternative views at all. Seems some things are sadly set in stone.’ If you look back at the suggestions which I noted were made whilst I was at the event

* The draft design of the station is too boxy and bland – Don’t want to end up as nondescript as Aintree Station when it was modernised.
* Will some of the circular buses be diverted there because the bus access along narrow roads is poor to the present Maghull Station?
* Can there be a memorial included to reflect the historic Moss Side Hospital that was on the site before? This refers to the pioneering work done there during and after the First World War into shell shock.
* Can the old Maghull Station be renamed Maghull Hornby to differentiate it from Maghull North?
* Can Maghull North name be changed to say Maghull Moss Side for example?

you could say that only one was actually followed up on – the memorial and an excellent memorial it is too. The others were rejected (or not even taken seriously?) it seems and there may well have been others I did not hear about.

So why start banging on about ‘consultation’ now Robertson?

Well my good friend Roy Connell, once a fellow Sefton Borough and Maghull Town Councillor, has public sector consultation buzzing around his head presently.

In his case it involves consultation by office of the Merseyside Police & Crime Commissioner regarding the amount of extra precept (an addition to our Council tax bills) it wants to charge in the financial year 2020/2021. Roy’s view, if I’ve understood him correctly, is the consultation has in effect been all but tokenistic. 2072 people expressed a view on the matter via either being telephoned directly or through them commenting on the matter via the survey (no, like you I didn’t know about it) on the Police and Crime Commissioner’s website. When you consider that Merseyside has a population of approximately 1.4m then a couple of thousand taking part in a survey/consultation is a very small percentage.

We live in a representative democracy where we elect people to make significant decisions about our country, region and community. The idea being that if those decisions displease us we can kick out the representatives who made them. But we seem to have developed, at least in recent years, a desire to consult folk over decisions about public policy. At face value this is a great idea but in reality aren’t the consultations rather meaningless if the vast majority of folk know nothing of them or if those being surveyed may not be taken much notice of unless they say things which fit with the policy direction being consulted on?