What is public consultation?
Public consultation can be defined as:
- ...the dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based on a genuine exchange of views, and normally with the objective of influencing decisions, policies or programmes of action. 
- ...two-way exchange of information between the Corporation and the public before decisions are made. It is an open and accountable process allowing individuals and groups to participate in the decision-making process of the Corporation. 
- ...a local attempt to seek the views of a broad constituency of persons. User involvement is a local attempt to include organized groups of service users in the planning, and occasionally the management, of such services.
The definition offered above gives a broad overview as to what constitutes public consultation. In practice, the variety of forms that public consultation exercises take, vary widely. In some respects the activities involved are similar to that of traditional research methods, such as surveys typically designed to extract attitudinal, behavioural and demographic information.
Increasingly however, processes of public consultation are involving more open forms of dialogue such as focus groups and citizens juries.
Think about these consultation techniques... all require some sort of information gathering and communication process and this is where ICTs come in. The notion that ICTs could, even if they do not as yet, provide tools and frameworks for increasing access and improving the quality of access to government is, however, increasingly accepted. That ICTs could provide tools that better integrate the citizen into the governing networks through aiding improved consultation and participation of citizens in government is likewise, increasingly the subject of research. If we consider the wide range of information communication technologies that exist and their capability to collapse time and space, their potential to facilitate your consultation is well worth exploring.
What is e-consultation?
The concept of e-consultation is a relatively new one and concerns the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to enable participation in public consultation. According to ofmdfmni.gov.uk , e-consultation is
- an online consultation process using the Internet to ask the public their opinion on one or more specific topics and allows for discussion between participants.
E-consultation is the use of electronic computing and communication technologies in consultation processes and is complimentary to existing practices. E-consultation can be an effective tool in encouraging participation and gathering responses to consultation documents and social policy issues as part of a broader range of methodologies. To find out more please visit http://www.e-consultation.org/
Some of the commonly asked questions:
- I've never heard of it. What is it in a nutshell?
- What is consultation?
- What is the difference between consultation and e-consultation?
- What exactly is 'consultation' and 'e-consultation'? What is the difference between the two?
- Do we need to have website to run e-consultation?
- How e-consultation is useful/helpful in doing proposed consultation process?
- What are the benefits/drawbacks of doing e-consultation for my organisation?
- What are the main techniques?
- what are the kind of e-techniques I can use?
- What are examples of its use?
- What are the examples of successful e-consultation?
E-consultation has value added in terms of the time, costs, participation rates, engagement levels and dissemination processes associated with completing a successful consultation. The use of Information communication technologies (ICT) can facilitate a number of tasks: 1) information transfer, 2) dialogue support, 3) problem exploration and solving, 4) measurement of needs and preferences, 5) joint document writing. Within this guide you will find detailed explanation of the nature of the benefits with accompanying examples.
- Why should I think of using e-consultation?
- When is it appropiate to use e-consulation in instead of or in tandem with traditional methods.
- What are the benefits to me in using e-consultation and e-technology?
According to ofmdfmni.gov.uk , a well run E-consultation has the following advantages:
- It enables people to immediately highlight their views
- It enables people to engage in a discussion which may in turn stimulate further ideas
- It reduces the chill factor of responding to consultations in a traditional written format
According to UK Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, e-consultation can bring a number of benefits , for example:
- the potential to reach, quickly and easily, a wide and diverse audience
- the opportunity for respondents who have little time, to respond interactively to consultations and send their comments on-line, rather than by post
- the opportunity for more informed consultation, by providing access to further information through links to online resources
- the opportunity to filter and analyse responses automatically as they are received electronically
- the opportunity to generate feedback to respondents automatically and to provide them with email alerts when future, similar consultations are launched.
The Move Towards Governance
Since the early 1990’s most Western democracies have moved from a traditional government model to one based on the concept of ‘governance’. This is a term derived from the Latin ‘cybern’ meaning ‘steering’ and, not coincidentally, the same root as the contemporary ‘cybernetics’. Given the real and perceived loss of control of the economy by the nation state due to the rise of economic internationalism (globalisation in short) it is now seen as more appropriate to see the state as ‘steering’ the economy. The new governance theories stress ‘steering’ over control and focus more on processes and outcomes rather than on formal institutional arrangements (see Pierre and Peters, 2000). Given the complexity of contemporary information/network/global society, governance is seen to provide a more adequate response than traditional government approaches focused in existing institutions. The governance approach would see itself as more flexible, innovative, more in tune with a market society. It would, in keeping with the ethos of a cybernetic-information society, stress the effectiveness of networks and non-bureaucratic modes of regeneration.
An interesting development of governance theory is the concept of multi-level governance, which is particularly illuminating for our study of e-governance. It reflects the growing complexity of the government function, that is more geographically diverse now (occurring at multiple levels) but also more differentiated horizontally insofar as it is now more often provided by multiple agencies. This is particularly the case in relation to so-called ‘wicked issues’ such as the environment or urban crime that are not amenable to traditional departmental-based government solutions. Multilevel governance then ‘stresses the complexity of policy-making implementation and accountability relationships between a variety of state and societal actors at the level of supranational activity (EU), central government, devolved administration, local authorities and quasi-government’ (Carmichael, 2003: 6)
From the point of view of a theory of democracy the most important issue to emerge from these debates is the nature and quality of social involvement. While there is a top-down conception of governance (conceived of as a more market-friendly version of government in the era of globalisation) it also takes a more participatory or bottom-up variant. From this conception, governance is seen to emerge from social interactions rather than be imposed from above. Society is seen to have the capacity to act autonomously and organise itself in pursuit of social interests that may conflict with those of government or the market. Government cannot simply impose its authority on a well-organised networked and informed society. Thus the move in recent years, in pursuit of a modernising governance agenda in many countries to create various forms of ‘social partnership’, particularly in the management of public sector activities.
In conclusion, the concept of governance allows us to grasp the transformation of democracy and participation in the era of the globalised network society. The political process today in Ireland, as elsewhere, involves much broader networks of governance than in the earlier Westminister model of government. While the loss of control by the state of the economy – the loss of sovereignty argument – is often exaggerated, the capacity of governments to manage their economy and society is threatened by globalisation. On the one hand there is this threat form above, or outside, but there is also a groping challenge from ‘below’ as social groups and communities organise on behalf of their own interests. So there is now a diversity of moves towards a more ‘modern’ form of governance, some from a market perspective, others from a social empowerment agenda. The results, as in all social and political processes, are mixed and complex.
Key principles for successful consultation
Oliver (2006) from consultationinstitute.org argues that there are three key principles that determine a successful consultation, and they are:
- Integrity. Everyone involved should have confidence in the consultor’s motivation and the process, even if they do not necessarily achieve the result they desire.
- Visibility is essential to ensure that the process is as accessible to as many stakeholders as possible.You need to tell people what the consultation is about, what the possible implications/outcomes are and why it is important for them to participate.
- Transparency and disclosure obligations are vital (with confidentiality only applying on matters of a personal nature). Consultors must report on all views and responses received and consultees must openly declare differences of opinion. It is important that everybody feels that there is a level playing field and that their opinions will be listened to, fairly interpreted and then accurately reflected in the final published document which should be made available to participants in an accessible format.
- The Consultation Institute: The Consultation Charter 2004
- Waterfront Toronto
- Harrison, S. and Mort M.(1998) Which Champions, Which People? Public and User Involvement in Health Care as a Technology of Legitimation. Social Policy and Administration, Blackwell Publishing. 32(1), pp. 60-70(11)
- ofmdfmni.gov.uk, http://www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/policylink-bulletin-15.pdf
- UK Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
- The Voluntary Arts Network