If you haven't read the first part of the story behind Mobility Lab, we suggest that you check it out before reading on.
John was right you know. Consultation really was a basic process.
For about 6 months I kept up the gig in planning. House extension, after house extension, after house extension. The same routine day in, day out. Send the letters to the highway authority and the parish council. Go out and put the site notice up. No old ladies this time. Or any time. The most that I got out of consultation was angry letters from neighbours who clearly don't get on with one another, bringing in every beef apart from planning issues.
The woman who said that their neighbours couldn't have planning permission because "it would encourage ne'er do wells and single mothers to hang out at their house more" was a personal favourite. The name that she gave was H. Bucket. I swear that is true.
Eventually, I changed jobs, and the first significant shift of my career took place. I took on the role of Assistant Transport Officer at Bedfordshire County Council, based at what was then called County Hall in Bedford. A monolithic, curved, massive 'screw you old town character' of a building so favoured during the late 1960s and early 1970s in architects departments in local authorities at the time. Famously built to have 7 floors, but only had 6 completed as the entire building began to sink into the ground was the 6th floor was build.
It was the first time I got to work in what felt like a proper team. The team leader was Glenn, an incredibly bright and easy-going team leader who had forgotten more about transport policy making than the rest of the Council knew. His finger was in every pie, from the Bedford Western Bypass to reviews of passenger transport. He knew what was happening, all the time, regardless of how left-field the question was.
Then there was Mel and Kim. The life blood of the team, the soul of the party, and whose reputation as a fearsome two-some was both unwarranted and completely true at the same time. Both locals (though like true Bedfordians - born elsewhere), they knew the County like the back of their hands, and how to handle almost any issue that was thrown at the team. They were incredibly supportive of all of what we did right from the start.
Did I say we? I started with someone else - Sarah. When someone introduces themselves as a former police officer it is meant as an ice breaker. Although a risky one. But she did not come across as you would expect a former officer would. Very kind and considerate, whilst I struggled in the first few weeks she took to the job like a duck to water. It really set the tone for the rest of our time there.
Then we had Dave and Ian working on the technical side. I got on well with both of them. Ian because he is a Manchester United fan, and Dave because we lived in the same village. But generally our work paths did not cross. Apart from making the tea and saying hello in the morning, our work did not cross for many years.
The big piece of work that the team was working on at the time was Local Transport Plan 2 (LTP2_. With a deadline that the team had to meet to get government funding, and a lot of work that needed doing to improve on the Draft LTP2 (it was scored as poor by the Department for Transport), myself and Sarah were given a choice, Do accessibility planning, or do the consultation.
Take a wild guess what I chose.
My task was simple. I had to plan for an 8 week consultation period on the Final LTP2, and improve on the disasterous score of poor from the Draft LTP2. We had JMP Consultants on board, and about 2 months to plan it. So we got cracking on it.
The first part was review the comments from DfT on LTP2. "No evidence of meaningful consultation." Great, thanks DfT. That's really helpful. Little was I to know that I would be spending a lot of time in the rest of my career saying exactly the same thing.
In a way, it was liberating. As whatever we did could only be better than what was done for the Draft LTP2. So we decided to keep our plan simple, and hit as many communities as we could throughout the 8 weeks. There was no science to it, no deliberate thought given to how we specifically target individual groups, nothing. Just hit as many people as we could.
It was a car crash. We held public exhibitions in libraries all over the County. We ran evening workshops in community halls across the authority, inviting members of the community to come and discuss transport and give their views. We promoted the consultation in the local paper for weeks, and ran stories and press releases on what we were doing.
The total responses from the public? 23. All that taxpayer money. All that time. All that promotion. For 23 comments from members of the public.
Of course we received comments from key stakeholder groups. We would have done so even if we did nothing. So the consultation was a complete bust. We did turn it around though through just providing evidence in LTP2 of how individual comments from specific stakeholders informed or aligned with our policy. A quote here, a finding from a survey there. All boosted the score from poor to good.
The consultation was still a disaster though.
It was a few months after we submitted the Final LTP2 to Government that we finally got to de-brief on the whole experience and what went wrong. The answer was so simple that it almost felt wrong. After talking for hours about the people who we spoke to, the reach of the press releases, the letters sent out, the quality of the consultation materials and the supporting website, we reached this conclusion.
By trying to involve everyone, we hit no-one.
It is tempting to think that by trying to involve everybody then you are giving everyone a fair say. Everyone has an equal opportunity to be engaged in the process, and everyone will be hit with the message that the consultation is happening and that they should have their say. It seems fair, equitable, and objective.
But that is completely the wrong way to think about it. Not only will most people actively ignore you, but by refusing to target people you are unwittingly being unfair and inequitable. The people who have the most to say about transport are the ones that have the greatest difficulty using it. You are relying on them to get out of their homes, come and see you, and comment passively on plans and policies that make little sense to them.
We did not go to them, in any sense. We just got closer to them than County Hall is. We did not take the essential first stage in community engagement. You must go to where the people who you want to engage with are, and engage them on their terms.
It was a mistake that I would not be repeating again any time soon. Next time, I would get it right. And it wasn't long before I got the opportunity to do so again.