Consultation does not necessarily mean that the community gets what it wants.

There have been a few projects in the media of late where community groups have lamented a lack of consultation on projects prior to delivery. Many of these projects have centred on construction and development but a few have involved policy development in areas as diverse as energy, water supply and even the definition of marriage. However diverse the topics, one thing stood out as being in common:

“The public can conflate consultation with getting what the loudest voices wish for and the media amplifies the impact of this.”

Look at any recent media coverage from your local area about any construction or development and see if there is an interest group or anti-development group. If there is, read the story carefully and I am almost sure that somewhere there will be a comment about the feeling that they were not consulted about the process. Whether that is true or not is largely irrelevant as that is what the group feels, which often leads to anger, frustration and ultimately conflict. The media then highlights the conflict which whether we like it or not makes great news and the story gets legs, further amplifying the situation.

It’s a vicious cycle, so what can we do about that? From my experience I have noted three aspects to consider when dealing with this increasingly wicked problem.

  1. We have a job to do to ensure that when we talk about consultation we are clear with what’s on the table and what’s off the table and why. This is where clarity about negotiables and non-negotiables is crucial. Being clear and consistent as to what you are asking and why is very important. It takes clear messaging and consistent delivery to have an impact and unfortunately there are no easy shortcuts.
  1. To be effective, consultation requires active listening from all parties. This has been a crucial lesson of late when I have seen well-meaning consultation face huge challenges when dealing with angry groups. Go back to step #1 when communities feel that their voices aren’t being heard as they are not in a space to listen. They may need to vent first before you can have a meaningful conversation.
  1. The media has different needs and wants viewers/readers to click on, read, view, their story. What you can do is present your case in a calm and rational manner and go back to step#1. No conflict = no ongoing news. I want to stress that this doesn’t make the media or journalists bad, they just have different motivations and we need to keep that in mind.

As practitioners we need to address the misunderstanding that consultation means that communities’ wants are always delivered, as this will only lead to further resentment. The onus is on all of us to deliver clear messaging about what’s on the table.

So what are your experiences when a community’s expectation when they hear the word consultation is ‘we get what we want’? How have you addressed this successfully?