This article was kindly written for ACEP by Andy Mills (a seasoned consultation and engagement professional)

The robustness of plans needed after a consultation has concluded is easily underestimated.  It’s quite the tragedy if an otherwise robust dialogue phase is tainted by questionable decision-making integrity.   In the past, we’ve witnessed consultations get crushed by something as simple as a failure to properly consider alternative proposals received during the process.

Rarely should the output of a consultation be the sole piece of evidence upon which a decision is taken.   Nor should a decision be the only option – for example, there are always (rarely exercised) options to consult more or investigate further.

In terms of validity, consultations have a limited shelf-life.  There may be some recalibration needed to account for external factors.  In essence, adaptive decision making allows for greater flexibility and hence greater public acceptability of decisions.  This might be as simple as deferring proposed changes or not applying them retrospectively.

Articulating the decision is also an art.  Consultation is not a vote but a meaningful narrative is crucial when decisions are unpopular. The most pressing requirement is to ‘give reasons’ for any decision, preferably empathetic ones which describe the trade-offs.  Sharp clarity is needed over what the decision actually is.

It’s even easier to ignore what happens after a decision has been made following any sort of public consultation.

Many of us move on to launching the next consultation and assume that the shock, denial and frustration will turn into acceptance.  And whilst it might in the long term, further support and communication seems obvious – at the very least to understand if the changes made had the right impact.

Experimental traffic orders are one of few methods that have the luxury of understanding impacts before a decision is made as the consultation can come after a temporary change. But traditional consultations are fraught with assumptions and estimates.  Truth is, there is plenty of conversation after consultation.  This might be among citizens on social media or between construction companies and citizens on dedicated apps like Sitepodium.

At an even simpler level there might be room for debate about the outcome (results) or output (decision) resulting from a public consultation.  For example, to scrutinise the analysis or decision in view of published evidence.  The thorn is that there is no further ability to influence – which is never a healthy basis for productive or popular post-consultation engagement.

But perhaps those implementation plans are less concrete and open for influence.  Maybe there is scope to pause construction at the weekend or (in the case of HS2) start work from one end instead of the other.  Maybe there is a moment of reflection between the output and outcome which can help shape a better outcome.  And maybe, just maybe there should be tighter rules on the need to revisit a consultation when there has been a big delay between a decision and implementation.

Even if all other options are off the cards, some sort of evaluation is needed to capture the lessons learned. That’s basic project management…which might explain why it doesn’t happen very often.