Allow plenty of time when planning your consultation. Photograph: jamesoladujoye

Undertaking a consultation can be daunting. But follow these steps from Kay Silversides and you will be on your way to success

Ongoing financial pressures make further remodelling of public services inevitable. And if the change required is significant enough that often means a public consultation.

If this idea brings you out in a cold sweat don’t panic. We can help.

At Qa Research we have supported numerous health bodies and local authorities with their consultations, learning key lessons along the way.

Here is our prescription for a healthy, headache-free consultation experience.

1. Build on an existing dialogue

Consultation exercises should not be a substitution for ongoing quality dialogue with your audience.

An understanding of how they feel about specific topics will pave the way when it comes to consultation time.

This ongoing dialogue can help you to establish what the flash points will be, and engage key stakeholders as you develop your proposals.

2. Understand the principles

When formal consultation becomes unavoidable it is time to turn to the Gunning principles.

Proposed in 1985 by the QC on a legal case relating to a consultation that had gone rather badly, the principles apply to all public consultations that take place in the UK.

Here are the principles which are worth noting…

  1. Give consultees sufficient information in order for them to give your proposals “intelligent consideration”.
  2. Allow enough time for the exercise.
  3. Ensure that “conscientious consideration” is given to the consultation responses.

3. Allow sufficient time

As the Gunning principles make clear, your consultees must be given enough time to respond. It is important not to underestimate how long the entire consultation planning process can take.

Developing clear proposals or options will take time. But this will reduce any pain further down the line.

A robust consultation should present options and rationale. A preferred option can be presented – but there should be an explanation of why other options cannot be considered, and a clear business case should be developed.

If you plan to work with an independent research provider, before bringing them in its best to decide

  1. what you want to consult on and
  2. what your options are.

4. Understand your consultees

Consultations have to work hard to be all things to all people – this is definitely not a one-size-fits-all scenario.

Your consultee population is likely to be diverse and include many ages, languages and cognitive styles. Be prepared to make available multiple versions of your proposals and survey – including, for example, different languages, an easy-read version, and another aimed at young people.

With a little work these can be made to be accessible whilst still maintaining the core purpose of the consultation.

Extra work may be needed to engage with ‘seldom heard’ groups. We have found that working with local community and voluntary sector organisations is one of the most effective ways to raise awareness about the consultation reaching these contributors.

As well as different versions you are likely to require multiple formats, such as

  • online surveys
  • self-completion surveys, and
  • face to face surveys.

Remember though, whatever you offer, some people will always want to respond in their own words in their own way by letter, email, or essay!

5. Mind your language

We have found that this is the biggest bugbear for consultation respondents. People often dislike jargon and acronyms.

Your best efforts to develop your proposals could be quickly dismissed if the language is impenetrable.

Care is also needed when it comes to survey design. Complaints about ‘leading questions’ are common within consultations.

Work out what needs to be explained, and what you need to ask. Then frame both as clearly and concisely as possible.

6. Relax

Consultations can be stressful, and the unexpected is likely to arise – but we hope that following our prescription will help to preserve your health during the journey!