Consultation and Engagement Charter

Read about our commitment to consult and engage with people in the Consultation and Engagement Charter.

Suffolk County Council is responsible for delivering a wide range of vital public services to and for the people of Suffolk. It’s what we’re here to do and what we’re passionate about. These services cost a lot of public money (around £500 million a year), which has to be invested wisely and in ways that deliver the best possible outcomes.

To make important decisions about how services are delivered and money is invested, Suffolk County Council consults and engages with residents, service users, businesses, partners and our staff. It’s the right thing to do, helps us to understand what people feel and, all things considered, leads to better and more informed decisions being made.

Why we've a Consultation and Engagement Charter

It sets out our commitment to consult and engage with people. It also sets out, in broad terms, what we mean by consultation and engagement, how we will consult and engage, why, what we will do with that information and how we will be transparent about it.

The Charter is intended to be used equally across all parts of Suffolk County Council - anywhere where we need to consult and engage be it Adult Services, Childrens Services, Fire and Rescue - any service that we provide.

All of these diverse areas of work are taken into account when writing this Charter. Each consultation is unique and the charter will provide guidance that is flexible enough to be adapted to any given situation.

We want to be an organisation that regularly involves people in our day to day work and, when necessary, the difficult decisions we must make. We want to be a listening council. We don’t want to be an organisation that makes difficult decisions on our own, and then tells people about them. Consultation and engagement must be audience-focused, and not rely on a ‘one size fits all’ approach which is easier to deliver but often ineffective.

The aim of this Charter is to make it easy for people to know what to expect when we ask them to give views on a subject. Our commitment is to be consistent throughout the consultation process and to follow best practice, as identified within this Charter.

The Charter has been co-created with input from consultation and engagement specialists, from both the centre of the organisation and the diverse teams that deliver consultation and engagement activity across the varied services within the Council. Dedicated consultation staff are also members of the Consultation Institute, the nationally recognised industry lead.

Consultation and Engagement Charter: sections

Fundamentally, both consultation and engagement mean asking people for their views on a subject. They should be genuine opportunities for people to influence the future. They should also mean those asking the questions will take the views they receive into account when making decisions. We should be clear on why we’re asking people to get involved. Often consultation and engagement feel like the same thing, but there are some differences between the two, as set out below.

Consultation

Consultation can take many forms, but at its core there must be a specified decision to make; the consultation must be an exercise where the participants could influence the outcome of the decision.

  • A consultation is not a referendum. The people that take part are not voting for a preferred outcome. Instead, they are being invited to share their views and helped to do so with accurate information provided to them as part of the consultation process.
  • Those views will be analysed in detail and taken into account by decision makers alongside other information, such as financial assessments, research and case studies from other areas that have carried out similar activities.
  • Transparency is important, so it should be possible for those who take part in consultations to see how their responses have been taken into account in the final decision. This final decision might not align with their views, but there will be a clear ‘line of sight’ between their input and the end outcome.
  • At best the public remain sceptical of what a consultation may achieve and from a theoretical perceptive ‘Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation’(left), dating from 1969, places consultation at only the fourth level of participation.

Engagement

Engagement is where the council seeks views from people to help inform how the council and its partners provide services for citizens, but without their being a specific decision that the local authority needs to take. Put very simply, it’s the council seeing what people think about certain subjects, generally wanting to know how they feel about things. This could range from academic/market research to gain views to a more focused exercise to influence and inform the design of a future consultation process or to improve the effectiveness of a public service.

Sometimes engagement activities can take the form of events (like Suffolk County Council’s We Are Listening programme), surveys (like a Residents’ Survey) or even informal feedback.

Like consultations, it’s important that those who take part can see the outcome. So there should always be an appropriate method of informing the public about the outcomes of what was heard, learnt and actioned as a result of their engagement.

Suffolk County Council believes that there is no one right way to undertake good consultation. The approach needs to be influenced by the circumstances surrounding the specific decision being made, including (most importantly) the people who are likely to be affected.

Nevertheless, the Council follows best practice and continually learns how to improve when it comes to consultation.

Basic principles essentially remain the same as established in a landmark case (R v London Borough of Brent ex parte Gunning (1985)). The “Gunning (also known as Sedley) Principles” were confirmed as applicable to all public consultations by the Court of Appeal in 2001 and can be seen carried through into current legislation and guidance such as the Planning Act 2008 and the Localism Act 2011.

The Gunning principles are:

  • Consultation must take place when the proposal is still at a formative stage
  • Sufficient reasons must be put forward for the proposal to allow for intelligent consideration and response
  • Adequate time must be given for consideration and response
  • The product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account

Suffolk County Council undertakes a diverse range of consultations each year. To ensure consistency, the following guiding principles, taken from Government advice published in March 2018, will be followed (in addition to the Gunning Principles) each time we undertake a formal consultation exercise.

A. Consultations should be clear and concise

Use plain English and avoid acronyms. Be clear on which questions you are asking and limit the number of questions to those that are necessary. Make them easy to understand and easy to answer. Avoid lengthy documents where possible and consider merging those on related topics.


B. Consultations should have a purpose

Do not consult for the sake of it. Consider whether you have a legal duty to consult. Take consultation responses into account when taking policy forward. Consult about policies or implementation plans when the development of the policies or plans is at a formative stage. Do not ask questions about issues on which you already have a final view.


C. Consultations should be informative

Give enough information to ensure that those consulted understand the issues and can give informed responses. Include validated impact assessments of the costs and benefits of the options being considered where possible; this might be required where proposals have an impact on business or the voluntary sector.


D. Consultations are only part of a process of engagement

Consider whether informal iterative consultation is appropriate, using new digital tools and open, collaborative approaches. Consultation is not just about formal documents and responses. It is an on-going process.


E. Consultations should last for a proportionate amount of time

Judge the length of the consultation based on professional advice and consideration of the nature and impact of the proposal. Consulting for too long will unnecessarily delay policy development. Consulting too quickly will not give enough time for consideration and will reduce the quality of responses.


F. Consultations should be targeted

Consider the full range of people, business and voluntary bodies affected by the policy and whether representative groups exist. Consider targeting specific groups if appropriate. Ensure they are aware of the consultation and can access it. Consider how to tailor consultation to the needs and preferences of particular groups, such as older people, younger people or people with disabilities that may not respond to traditional consultation methods.


G. Consultations should take account of the groups being consulted

Consult stakeholders in a way that suits them. Charities may need more time to respond than businesses, for example. When the consultation spans all or part of a holiday period, consider how this may affect consultation and take appropriate mitigating action, such as prior discussion with key interested parties or extension of the consultation deadline beyond the holiday period.


H. Consultations should be agreed before publication

Seek collective agreement before publishing a written consultation, particularly when consulting on new policy proposals. Consultations should be published on the Suffolk County Council website.


I. Consultation should facilitate scrutiny

Publish any response on the same page on gov.uk as the original consultation, and ensure it is clear when the government has responded to the consultation. Explain the responses that have been received from consultees and how these have informed the policy. State how many responses have been received.


J. Suffolk County Council responses to consultations should be published in a timely fashion

Publish responses within 12 weeks of the consultation or provide an explanation why this is not possible. Allow appropriate time between closing the consultation and implementing policy.


K. Consultation exercises should not generally be launched during local, national or European election periods

If exceptional circumstances make a consultation essential (for example, for safeguarding public health), advice should be sought.


L. People should be able to see clearly the impact of their contribution

Decision making should be transparent, so people should be able to see clearly how their response to a consultation is used in any final decision making.


M. Consultation Exercises should be rigorously evaluated

Both during the design process and subsequently consultations should be evaluated against the charter to ensure they are aligned to it.


N. Adoption of the Charter’s best practice for broader engagement

Where appropriate when we engage in other ways other than a formal consultation exercise, we will adopt the Charter’s principles.

Suffolk County Council doesn’t just want to be an organisation that seeks views from people when there is a specific decision to be made. Using our definitions above, we don’t just want to consult people. We want to be an organisation that engages with people, regularly and meaningfully.

Where it is appropriate, we want to encourage mechanisms for continuous customer/service user feedback. This in turn will enable directorates to create, maintain and act upon a system of continuous user engagement and feedback. This will enable both a better understanding of how services are received by users but in many instances also a reliable library of feedback to inform any consultation exercise.

We will continue our successful We Are Listening residents’ engagement events programme, staff survey and also introduce an equivalent for businesses.

Whenever we engage with people, we will report what we heard and plan to do, so that people can see the outcome of their contribution.

We’ve set out above our approaches to consultation and engagement, but we also need to support Suffolk County Council colleagues who are doing these activities.

Below is our commitment.

A – Guidance and Support

Suffolk County Council will ensure that whenever a consultation is undertaken, appropriate professional support and guidance will be available to inform the process.

This will include:

  • Professional guidance and support on best practice, provided by the Communications Team and Consultation and Engagement Manager
  • Support for software tools, such as SmartSurvey
  • A database of current and future consultations to help plan and facilitate consultations
  • The Charter and supporting documents will be formally rolled out to appropriate staff including senior managers to ensure that there is consistent support for our approach to consultation across the authority. This process will be revised and repeated as required.

B – Learning and Development

We will provide guidance and training to appropriate staff to improve the relevant officer’s skill set. We will share this learning with the wider organisation.


C – Proactively share information

The knowledge and information gained will be actively shared with our directorate teams. This will include:

  • Our Consultation and Engagement Charter will be shared widely within the council
  • Regular updates on current and future consultations will be provided to directorate management teams
  • Issues and concerns will be highlighted as required
  • Best practice and emerging knowledge will be shared with relevant staff across the authority through a Consultation and Engagement group.