That one can hardly stand up without bumping one’s head against, or travel any distance without stumbling over, publications enjoining the virtues of consultation does not of itself lend credence to their claims.

That government – or at least the previous one - and funders now routinely require consultation exercises to be conducted as a condition of grant hardly needs remark. That we – those of us out there actually trying to do something – play the cards we have been dealt as best we can, speaks well of our deftness and conjuring skills. But neither deftness nor adeptness in conjuring is constitutive of an argument or rationale. Fleetness of foot is not a form of justification.

There is no argument to be made against the general proposition that people, young and old, want and must be able to say what they think about matters that affect them. And account must be taken of their views. But left alone those sentiments are too general and platitudinous – offering temporary warmth but little sustenance.

A critique of consultation could limit itself to enumerating offences carried out in its name in respect of particular projects. By way of example: relatively low numbers of involvement; unstable consultee groups – different people turning up at different times; agreements and plans overturned at the project implementation stage by previously non-participating ‘late arrivals’, perhaps a Councillor or local resident with a lately-discovered particular concern.

These types of experiences raise fundamental questions about the legitimacy and authority of consultative processes. These questions are largely ignored or papered over in practice. They are questions to which there is no easy answer. They are ultimately political questions: about how power is distributed; about how and who exercises it and on whose behalf; about how it is held to account.

Critical attention could usefully be directed to consideration of the criteria and objectives that underpin, on the one hand, participative and consultative processes, whether involving children or adults; and on the other, the criteria and objectives underpinning the ends to which consultative and participative1 processes supposedly aim. Are they beneficially aligned?

The danger is that these processes become self-justifying, such that the purpose of consultation and participation is, simply, to involve people in those processes. If such is the case, consultation and participation is divorced from the substantive aim of searching for something we should be able to call – without embarrassment - ‘good’.

It is said that being involved in consultative and participative processes engenders a sense of ‘ownership’ in the resultant output of those so engaged. These claims are probably overstated. But whether so or not, the proprietorial impulse cannot of itself engender a commitment to exploring ideas about what is good. Consideration of what might constitute the good in any particular circumstance is a distinct endeavour, prompting views that are often hotly contested.

Now institutionalised, consultation and participation cannot, and is not designed to, cope with or stimulate ‘hot contention’. Rather, it acts as a balm, aiming for a consensus – usually in the shortest time possible– but diluted to the lowest level of general acceptability.

A commitment to exploring what might be good, in whatever field of endeavour, would be tantamount to administering an electric shock to the body of accepted ‘participation works’ opinion.

Such a commitment implies a need to ask questions about, for example, the relationship of quantity to quality – just because a majority want something, or use it a lot, is it good? – about the democratic process, about the dangers (and benefits?) of a consumerist ethos, about the status and authority of knowledge and opinion generally.

Whatever dispensation may come to bear under the new coalition government, the previous administration’s interest in consultative/participative processes was, from the perspective of this article, primarily a form of managerialism, offering local people an illusion of substantive choice-making.

Too many consultative and participative processes have about them a sense of ritual, of ceremonies being enacted. They are essentially performances, as in a masque, with but a tenuous connection to the substantive choices that will be made, and which will leave their mark upon the world.

14 July 2010

It is understood that ‘consultation’ and ‘participation’ are terms that carrying different meanings to the extent that it can be argued that the former is but a tokenistic nod at the latter. But that is a discussion for another day.