Consultation: Ignore it at your peril

In the village of West Lynn, right in the heart of urban gentrified Auckland, some pre-Christmas consultation is going on.

It’s all around some makeover plans, including a cycleway. If you were new to the area, you’d think the proposal is new too. Only it’s not.

This round of consultation is all about fixing a failure — at the cost of an estimated $23 million — of a plan which saw a cycleway created, new plantings, changes to carparking and to bus stops.

According to local businesses, revamp Mark 1 has led to a decline in customers and a rarely used cycle lane. Auckland Council and Auckland Transport have, by all reports, got it wrong.

But why should this be the case? The Local Government Act 2002, the Resource Management Act 1991 and sheer common sense tells you it’s a good idea, when hatching grand plans, to tell your stakeholders. That’s step one. Then it’s a good idea to listen and that was missed the first time around.

There’s a lesson here in what consultation is all about. The underlying principles, firmly supported by case law, often differ wildly from the popular concept.

Consultation is not saying “hey guys, have we got a plan for you”, when you know that change will only be contemplated under duress. Consultation is — and let’s take the medicine — a two-way process, needing open minds on both sides and it is not a means to an end. It is not even about getting agreement.

So, to answer the frustrated question of “what’s the point then?” here is a description. Consultation is supposed to be an honest and yes, painful way to identify areas of difference, resolve them if possible and get a result the majority can accept. All of this points to getting some good communications advice right from the beginning.

Almost all projects have highly skilled people on board like planning consultants and specialist advisors in everything from environmental impacts to acoustics. But too often, getting communications advice is left until it’s time to consult. Yet there are best practice principles in consultation which support earlier involvement.

The first is timing. There’s a lot to be said for going out early, especially when consulting communities. That way, details of what you have in mind can be shared before you are too locked down in the exacting and expensive stages of final plans. Going early gives you flexibility to change — and it sends a good signal to your stakeholders that your ears as well as your mouth are open.

The next principle is honesty. All plans have must-dos and nice-to-haves. If you are clear about what is negotiable and what is not, you can focus more on the areas for negotiation. But it’s important to be honest about why something is non-negotiable, and address points your opponents could raise. They will raise them anyway, but your argument is out there in advance and in print.

Principle three is to take an open-mind into consultation. If you ask people what they think, then listening must follow. It is not only courteous, but can also be contagious, leading to principle four. Consultation is a two-way engagement.

It requires you, to provide as much information as reasonable to support your proposal. But consultation’s role is also to enable your stakeholders to put forward their opinions, concerns and support.

That’s why people who engage in consultation programmes regularly are always at pains to point out that it is never just a list to topics you can marked as “accepted”. No relationship has everyone in total agreement, so it should come as no surprise that consultation is the same.

While the fourth principle is agreement is not necessary — do not be fooled into a false sense of security. When you are presenting your project for approval — for resource consents, for funding, or the approval of the Environment Court, evidence will be required that genuine effort has gone into the process. This means working to resolve the points of difference as far as possible. In this regard consultation is more of a cousin to mediation.

All this suggests there’s a bit more to it than a couple of public meetings and a poster at the library. Good consultation uses all possible tools, from microsites to one-on-one meetings, flyers to drop-in sessions. Who, what and where will be dictated by the project. The final chapter in the consultation process is to go back to your stakeholders, summarising what they said, what you changed, what you didn’t and why, and explaining what happens next. Never underestimate the power of people feeling they have been given a good hearing — even if they didn’t get everything they sought.

Consultation provokes some eye-rolling among the evangelists, the enthusiasts and the “we know best” advocates who firmly believe they have already anticipated and incorporated community views. But the caution is, ignore it at your peril. The soap box and the ballot box are powerful tools for stakeholders who feel ignored. And Auckland’s West Lynn is a case in point.