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Good Practice Guidance Consultation with Equalities Groups

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GOOD PRACTICE GUIDANCE CONSULTATION WITH EQUALITIES GROUPS

PART 1: INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this booklet is to provide some basic guidance about how to ensure that "equalities groups" are not excluded from public consultation exercises.

Equalities groups include:

  • women
  • minority ethnic communities
  • gypsies/travellers
  • asylum seekers
  • refugees
  • disabled people
  • people with specific health issues
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups
  • young people and older people
  • those in specific areas (such as rural areas or peripheral estates)
  • religious/faith groups
  • those on low incomes

The guidance is aimed at those undertaking consultation and not at those being consulted. The guidance is relevant to all staff within the public sector who may be involved in consultation. It is also relevant to those in organisations within the voluntary sector (for example housing associations) which are increasingly carrying out such work.

THE NEED FOR GUIDANCE

Consultation has been increasing in recent years throughout Scotland. Organisations (often in the public sector) have recognised the benefits of working with communities. Consultation, in all its forms, can improve and inform the development of policy and practice by drawing on a wide range of experiences and views.

There is currently a national emphasis on improving policy making and practice in public organisations. There is a focus on "modernising government" and providing "best value" in services. Public participation, accountability and openness in decision making are central to this, and consultation is a key element of effective central and local government. The Scottish Executive, at the start of its own internal consultation guidance, suggests that "an effective consultation process is fundamental to good government". It is also important to other local organisations working in areas such as health, housing, criminal justice and economic development.

There are many reasons why consultation is useful. Identifying the views of a wide range of community groups can lead to better policy. The decisions made are more likely to reflect the needs of communities and be supported by them. More issues will be raised and more solutions identified through consultation than by centralised policy making. There will be more transparency and accountability, and members of the community will have a stake in the development of policies that affect them.

It is vital that public policy does not reflect only the views of part of the population. Social justice is a shared national and local priority across Scotland. It cannot be achieved without engaging the groups who are often currently excluded. Those undertaking consultation must ensure that the process and the way it is undertaken does enable equalities groups to take part.

As these issues have been recognised by organisations, there has been a growing focus on the need for equality in consultation. Many local authorities are working with groups experiencing discrimination and exclusion and have done so for many years. The Scottish Executive is also committed to promoting equality and to "mainstreaming", which involves considering equalities issues in all aspects of policy and practice. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 also requires designated public sector organisations to consult with minority ethnic communities in a range of policies and service delivery issues.

Consultation which includes equalities groups is in everyone's interests. There is a need to ensure that all relevant groups are able to participate and that organisations can demonstrate how they have consulted. Some exercises will be wide-ranging (e.g. seeking the views of a large random sample of the population) while others may be aimed at a particular target group (e.g. those most obviously affected by a policy). Every issue, however, will have an equality dimension which needs to be identified and the necessary steps taken to ensure that it is reflected in practice. That is the focus of this guidance.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE GUIDANCE

The guidance is based on the experiences of the Scottish Executive and local authorities in consulting with equalities group. The need for the booklet was identified by the Executive, based on feedback from "grassroots" meetings with a number of groups, as part of the development of its equality strategy. The feedback from the meetings suggested that some equalities groups had poor experiences of consultation, with an inconsistent approach and a lack of awareness of the issues they faced.

The guidance highlights examples which were raised at these meetings and information from other sources. Examples of methods used, "what works" and suggested improvements for the future were also collected from local authorities in Scotland and divisions of the Scottish Executive. The guidance was circulated in draft to Scottish Executive departments, local authorities and the main national equality organisations, and their comments informed the revision of this guidance.

THE NATURE OF CONSULTATION

The definition of "consultation" adopted for the booklet is as follows:

"Consultation is when we provide opportunities for all those who wish to express their opinions on an area of our work (such as identifying issues, developing or changing policies, testing proposals or evaluating provision) to do so in ways which will inform and enhance that work".

This is based on the definition used by the Scottish Executive, broadened to include other ways in which public agencies and equalities groups might interact.

It is recognised that consultation is only one part of the relationship between public agencies and equalities groups. There are many other forms of working which are also vital, including, for example, capacity building, community empowerment and the development of longer-term joint working arrangements. These are described briefly in Section 3, but the focus of the guidance is mainly upon consultation, as defined above.

EXCLUSION FROM CONSULTATION

Although it is rare that an organisation makes a conscious decision to exclude a group from consultation, this can happen for a range of reasons. The most common reason is that the organisation undertaking the consultation does not take account of the requirements of all groups who may have an interest in the process. The way in which consultation is conceived, arranged and undertaken can create or remove barriers to participation and the Scottish Executive Equality Unit has identified a number of such barriers, including:

  • methods used (for example, by relying on methods which use IT, or which focus only on written communication)
  • physical barriers (for example the inaccessibility of venues or the lack of facilities at events)
  • attitudinal barriers (the ways in which staff approach or respond to groups and individuals and the assumptions they make)
  • financial (many equalities groups lack resources and this often affects whether they can respond to consultations)
  • cultural (for example, using inappropriate facilities or language)

It is important when planning consultation to think carefully about who might be excluded by such barriers and to act to address this. A checklist approach to identifying barriers or excluded groups will not work. These must be identified on a case-by-case basis.

OVERVIEW OF THE GUIDANCE

This guidance covers:

  • The nature of consultation and the need for guidance
  • Preparing for consultation
    • Choosing how to consult
    • Preparing to consult
    • Identifying and reaching "hard to reach" groups
  • Carrying out consultation
    • Staff attitudes and skills
    • Timing
    • Accessible and appropriate information
    • Access to meetings and venues
    • Information sharing and feedback
    • Consultation fatigue
    • Capacity building and longer-term work
  • The main guiding principles for consulting equalities groups

This booklet is not a general guide to consultation or a theoretical account of the process. There is already a large literature on methods available for consultation, and on the benefits and drawbacks of consultation techniques. The Scottish Executive, for example, has produced a guide for its own staff entitled "Good Practice Guidance on Consultation" detailing the options and methods for work of this kind. About half of Scottish local authorities also have written guidance on consultation and CoSLA published good practice guidance in 1998.

The promotion of equality is often mentioned, but rarely in detail, within the more general guides. This booklet focuses specifically upon this aspect of consultation.

It is not possible for the booklet to identify every potential issue for every group. This would inevitably miss some aspects of groups' experience. It would also risk a tokenistic approach to equality. Instead, the issues raised and the examples given can provide a starting point for organisations developing their own work.