In the ‘CES guide to’ series, we lift the lid on some of the approaches we use for the work we do with agencies, services, and government departments. In this guide, we look at inclusive consultations. How can we hear from the quieter voices in the room?
Public consultations are open to everyone. However, participation rates are often low, with even the slickest survey yielding minimal responses. Furthermore, members of the public do not speak with a single voice, but instead bring different perspectives and experiences to an issue. Sometimes the more powerful voices and opinions can crowd out excluded or marginal voices. While the internet promises digital tools and opportunities to reach out to everyone, instead there is increasing fatigue around the constant requests for feedback that we experience in our daily lives, from political parties to retail outlets.
There is an interest and a commitment from governments to hearing from people and communities experiencing exclusion. There is a growing vocabulary to describe different purposes – from citizen voice, to service user engagement and involving ‘lived experience’. In recent years, government has introduced new mechanisms which encourage more people to come together, to talk about their communities, review and make recommendations on legislation, or share their thoughts and aspirations for the future. Examples in Ireland and Northern Ireland include the Citizens Assembly, internationally recognised as good practice. Public Participation Networks facilitate ongoing dialogue between communities and local authorities. The National Care Experience Programme gives people the opportunity to feedback on their experience of health and social care, and suggest improvements.
Whether it involves a simple survey, a series of focus groups, or longer engagement, consultations can be designed and run to be more inclusive, generate feedback from the end user, help you to measure progress and identify improvements. Our work has involved supporting consultations with parents, service providers, social workers, health professionals, people with disabilities, children and young people.
Here we include five things we have learned that can help make consultations more inclusive.
Focus on the essential information you need, and how you plan to use it. Consultation exercises are frequently run as once off activities and it can be difficult for people involved to see the difference their input has made. Consider opportunities for further engagement and sharing progress as your initiative develops. Be realistic in what the exercise can achieve and manage expectations from the outset.
Who is most affected by the issue, and what’s the best way to reach them? How much time can you expect them to commit? Representative and advocacy organisations working with service users may be able to help you to reach particular individuals and groups, and advise you about the use of language and design. Check in with relevant networks. If possible, test your approach first with a small group of users and refine it. Location and setting are important when engaging with vulnerable groups.
There are many reasons why people don’t engage with consultations. People may perceive the exercise as tokenistic. Some groups face particular barriers for example people with disabilities, migrants and members of the Travelling Community. Language, literacy, caring responsibilities, access to technology, gender, cultural and other factors can prevent or dissuade people from participating. Consultations may involve people speaking out about difficult, traumatic experiences in their lives and you may need to involve specialist expertise.
Accessibility is now rightfully an expectation for physical events and we need to think this way when consulting online. Check the accessibility of software on different browsers and devices. Plan the timing and location for focus groups to maximise participation. When using video platforms, factor in resources and tools for ISL or close captioning where possible, and ask about any specific needs well in advance. ‘Ask me’ is a guidance document produced by the National Disability Authority in 2002 which includes practical advice for inclusive consultations, and which is currently being reviewed and updated. NALA’s plain English tips can help with clear written and visual communication.
Creative tools and approaches can breathe new life into tired formats. Digital tools such as Menti and Slido engage people in polls and voting activities. In Scotland, Recovery Conversations Cafes are bringing people together to talk about what matters to them.
Using visual aids or props can help when consulting children and young people. Tusla the Child and Family Agency has gathered a range of tools, methodologies and guidance for consulting with children. Methodologies such as Photovoice involve the use of ethical photography for social change purposes. The use of peer researchers, while it may be time and resource intensive, demonstrates good levels of engagement with young people, particularly in challenging circumstances such as care settings or homelessness. Young people may relate better to peer researchers due to similar age or life experience but you will need to train and support them. The setting and context where consultation takes place is also a factor when engaging children and young people.
Finally, it goes without saying that issues of consent, safeguarding and data protection may apply to consultations you are undertaking. Being familiar with policy and guidance which applies from the outset can help you to follow best practice, and requirements relating to recording and managing any personal data. Ethical and authentic engagement is the starting point for building trust and creating the conditions for transparent inclusive consultations.