Rules of engagement: how we’re setting better standards for community consultation

Like all councils, engaging and consulting our residents on key issues is a big priority for us. We want our communities to tell us what they think about potential changes to the area and share their ideas about what things could make Sefton an even better place to live. But we’re not the only ones who want to get people’s views on things like this. Our partner organisations also want to hear what residents think about their plans and proposals. While it’s great to involve people in decision-making, if you ask too many questions, from too many different directions, people switch off and end up not engaging at all. We wanted to reduce the risk of consultation fatigue, duplication and confusion in the borough about what was happening and when, so we decided to put some structure in place and bring all of our partners together to find ways to do in a more consolidated, coordinated and effective way.

Getting everyone together was actually quite straightforward. As we already had strong relationships in place with our partners we knew who we needed to involve straightaway. We were also proposing a solution to a problem that affected everyone so there was genuine support and buy in from the start.

Together, we developed the Sefton Public Engagement and Consultation Framework – a new set of standards that all partners across the borough would sign up to in order to make sure their consultation and engagement activities were effective and impactful. Publicly we badged the standards as ‘Your Sefton Your Say’ to help the public understand what they should expect from consultations in the borough (and also because the word ‘framework’ tends not to get anyone too excited!)

The standards we set were:

The way we speak with and listen to our communities is clearWe identify all local people who are likely to be interested in the consultationWe have public engagement and consultation plans that are value for moneyAll relevant information is available in appropriate formats and in plain English for people who want to see itAll responses are recorded accurately and fairlyAll consultation and engagement activities have a clear plan for giving feedback on the results of the work to the communityWe demonstrate how our work to consult and engage with the public has influenced our policies and plansWe will assess the effectiveness of our work

Importantly, we also created a Partnership Public Engagement and Consultation Panel to make sure the standards were correctly met and followed. This included representatives from the council; the health sector; the voluntary, community and faith sectors; as well as the emergency services, youth sector and other bodies like our local transport authority. The panel ensures that everyone’s accountable for the consultation and engagement exercises they run, which improves standards and helps us to build trust and confidence with residents. It also allows partners to have their plans quality assured and peer reviewed by colleagues across the borough which is brilliant for wider collaboration and development.

The framework and panel have been running for nearly ten years now and I can’t imagine us running consultation and engagement any other way. Working in a structured and collaborative way has helped us to deliver more consistent consultations and keep participation levels really high. It’s also helping us to achieve real success. The great quality feedback we got from a recent swimming pool consultation provided us with enough evidence to bid for more funding – resulting in us being awarded a grant of £531,582 by Sport England. It’s also helped us to focus our communications on engaging people in our key messages and exciting them about participating, rather than having to waste time clearing up confusion about what consultations are going on are being run by who.

We’ve also had great support from Members and senior officers, which has given us another avenue for communicating messages about why people should get involved in consultations and engagements. We’re seeing the benefits that working more collaboratively can bring. I’d encourage everyone to do it.

Nicky Speed is Corporate Communications Manager at Sefton Borough Council.

You can read more about Sefton’s experience and the importance of community engagement in our dedicated #FutureComms chapter.

Posted on 1st August 2018