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The key to effective local government consultation

Monday, May 19, 2008

Early involvement the key to effective local government consultation

Local government decision-making can be a polarising process according to PhD graduate Simon Nash.

Dr Nash, who graduated last week as a Doctor of Philosophy in Social Policy, says contentious issues such as wastewater planning, windfarms and electricity pylons led him to direct his research at the way in which local government consults with the public.

“People have strong points of view when it comes to certain issues and the process of discussing them usually only puts greater distance between the competing sides, leading people to be more intransigent.”

Simon Nash says environmental issues are often the most hotly debated.

“Windfarms, for example, are one of those things that bring up a wide array of subjective opinions. People who are against them have strong emotional views, Those views are entirely valid, but proponents quite often end up just banging their fist on the table, as they can’t always find expert evidence to back up their argument, yet that is what the legal system focuses on.”

He says this win-lose approach leads to those on both sides of the argument moving further apart, rather than reaching a compromise, as the consultation process should seek to achieve.

Dr Nash used Q-methodology, which involves participants ranking a set of cards labelled with various value statements, to explore their views on wastewater planning processes.

He found most attention is focused on technical debates. Yet it is the perspective-based conflicts that are often the main obstacle to the integration of peoples’ views into decision making.

“What we need is a situation that doesn’t pit people against each other, but rather gets them to listen and understand the range of views that are held on an issue. We need to foster an environment where citizens and councils can understand one another’s real concerns.”

But there’s no quick fix to the problem.

“It will take money and resources. It could be that consultation should begin earlier in the decision-making process before time runs short and things get heated. The problem is that people are hard to motivate that early in the piece, and they become tired of being consulted, so perhaps incentives to attend discussion forums, such as reimbursement of travel costs, could be one solution.”

Dr Nash says it’s obvious that not everyone’s point of view can be accommodated in any decision, but better, more inclusive consultation can result in the outcome being more universally accepted as a legitimate decision.


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