How to consult effectively with consumers in your role as a consumer representative.

Consumer consultation – the basics

Consultation is a generic term which covers a wide range of different levels of discussion and consideration. The purpose of consultation is to improve decision-making. It is an exchange of perspectives and of knowledge to identify problems and develop decisions which have the best chance of providing solutions which work and address the problem. Effective consultation is a genuine exchange of views between people who have the knowledge and experience to confront the issues.

Why do consumers come to consultation meetings?

Consumers come to consultation meetings to contribute to decision-making and to be listened to. Being listened to in a respectful and serious way is what consultation is all about for them.

Although you take the opportunity to explain your proposal first-hand, answer questions, and share your perspective with consumers, it is then critical that you demonstrate you are listening by focusing on what the consumers are saying as they talk and by responding and reflecting back to them what they have said. In other words, demonstrate what you have heard and give them the opportunity to correct you if you missed something.

Locating effective consumer representatives

The key to effective consultation with consumers is inviting the participation of effective consumer representatives.

Effective consumer representatives can and do add value to decision-making because they can assess problems from the consumer perspective and identify the consequences of both the problem and any proposed solutions. They bring identifiable and quantifiable knowledge, perspectives, and judgement to the table. That knowledge includes insight into culture and the reality of those consumers’ daily lives, and how that affects the way they think and act particularly when they are in difficulty or disadvantaged.

Read more about recruiting consumer representatives.

Consultation – a genuine exchange

Describe very clearly to those you are consulting the nature of the consultation and the results you are looking for.
Consultation has been defined by the Court. For discussion to be defined as consultation there must be

  • communication of a genuine invitation to give advice
  • sufficient information supplied to the consulted party
  • sufficient time given to the consulted party to participate
  • genuine consideration of advice given.

This is a particularly appropriate approach when consumer agreement to the outcome of an initiative is critical.

In other words, consultation is a forum where you may have defined an issue or a problem and you may put your point of view, but your focus must be on hearing how others define the problem and see the solutions so that you can incorporate that into your thinking when you write the proposal for the decision-makers.

Relevant legal decisions

“Consulting involves the statement of a proposal not yet fully decided upon, listening to what others have to say, considering their responses and then deciding what will be done.”

West Coast United Council v Prebble (1988)
12NZTPA 399, at 405

“The essence of consultation is the communication of a genuine invitation to give advice and a genuine consideration of that advice. To achieve consultation sufficient information must be supplied by the consulting party to the consulted party to enable it to tender helpful advice. Sufficient time must be given by that consulting party to the consulted party to enable it to do that.”

McGechan J, in Air New Zealand Ltd v Wellington International Airport Ltd
(CP403/91, High Court, Wellington)

Beware advocacy

When you have developed an argument, or written a paper which includes a proposal, it is a particular skill to then listen to others criticise that proposal and make alternative proposals without leaping to defend it. In the course of consultation, however, this is what you must do. The talent is to not hear alternatives as victimising your proposal but instead to see them truly as alternatives which you consider seriously.

It is, therefore, important to:

  • ensure you follow people’s line of enquiry and thinking
  • understand how they have defined the problem
  • identify what evidence they have selected, and
  • how they have reached their conclusions.

If this is not how the process progresses then this is not consultation.

Maximise value

Much of the consultation which occurs between government and other bodies occurs in writing. For this reason, especially, the practice has developed of providing questions.

This is not a problem in itself. The problem is in the loss of value which occurs because of the way this is often interpreted by consumers. Consumers often assume that, before consultation occurs, the problem has been defined and the solution or decision has been decided, at least in terms of its shape.

In this situation, consumers assume that any discussion on the definition of the problem, the priority the matter has with consumers, and other possible ways that this problem could be approached will be ignored. They assume they have been asked to focus on the proposal you have developed – not on earlier, fundamental questions.

Consumers are also likely to assume that something is going to happen regardless of their response so their focus is on making the proposal as right as possible and not on challenging its foundations.

So, if you want consumer representatives to

  • assess problems from the consumer perspective and
  • identify the consequences of both the problem and any proposed solutions and
  • make a comprehensive quality judgement and
  • provide advice

Then you need to encourage consumers to see the questions as a guideline to help them think, and not as the points they must confine themselves to if their response is to be counted.

Consultation meetings

Conducting consultation through meetings requires some expertise in meeting management. The size of meetings and the participants are key factors in this management.

Examples

You may hold large meetings for “all comers” across New Zealand, inviting all relevant organisations and individuals (consumers, interested professionals, and industry) to meet together. This will enable various groups to hear and consider the views of others and maybe come to an industry/consumer consensus on some matters. Such a meeting will require expert chairing.

  1. You may hold separate meetings for industry, interested professionals,
  2. and consumers/community. This removes opportunities for groups to challenge each other and perhaps achieve some consensus. On the other hand you are likely to get clarity on the various perspectives. This is a wise approach where there is conflict within one or other of the sectors.
  3. You may meet with people organisation by organisation (industry, consumers). You will only meet members of the organisations you select, which may restrict the breadth of opinion you give yourself access to.
  4. You may create an advisory group(s) of 10-12 consumer representatives from selected consumer organisations, or selected consumer constituencies, or a mixture of both.NZ Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, NZ Federation of Family Budgeting Advice Services, the Maori Women’s Welfare League, Pacifica, Consumer NZ, Rural Women, National Council of Women, are a few of the many organisations you could invite. Examples of constituencies are Maori, middle New Zealand, new migrants, people with difficulties, Pacific peoples, rural people, Aucklanders, new migrants, younger New Zealanders, middle-aged New Zealanders, and older New Zealanders.
  5. You may create a mixed advisory group(s) of 10-12 representatives of consumers, industry, interested professionals for a short term. Representatives may come from selected organisations or constituencies or a mixture of both.
  6. You may consult by correspondence or written submission by sending the proposal to organisations and identified individuals and perhaps holding some explanatory meetings.

Checklist for effective meetings with consumers

What is the question?
Have the preferred outcomes of the meeting and the agenda on a board in front of the meeting so that this remains the focus of the meeting.

Focus on the task
Have a précis of the problem or proposal for discussion up on a board in front of people. It will keep everyone focused towards the front and on the task, and will allow specific referencing to the written document.

Meeting rules
At the beginning of the meeting set down some basic meeting rules which apply to you and to the consumer representatives such as:

  • a maximum of 5 minutes to speak on any one matter unless the meeting agrees to an extension
  • speak one at a time and no interrupting each other. Respect and courtesy are essential
  • when there’ll be a break
  • if you can’t hear someone move towards them until you can. You don’t have to stay at the front if things aren’t out of control
  • run a speaking list so people don’t have to jump in or keep their hands up. They are more likely to listen to the debate if they know their turn is coming.

Limit your speaking
Limit your speaking to

  • an initial clear and concise explanation of the problem and any proposals, and then try to limit yourself to answering questions. Don’t spend time convincing them you are right.
  • providing any other information which explains the nature of the proposal
  • the reasons why this matter has become an issue which needs to be dealt with
  • any instructions that you have had which are non-negotiable. This may include instruction from Ministers or senior colleagues, and also the requirements of conventions such as those for constructing cabinet papers
  • the process you are following and the processes of government, as appropriate
  • any timeframes you are obliged to meet.

Listen respectfully
Take every person and every opinion seriously. Show you are doing this by:

  • looking in their direction when they are speaking and not talking to others
  • keeping a record of who attended the meeting
  • storing their opinions on a white board or similar. Participants can see what you are getting out of their comment and how you are interpreting them. This enables them to see when they haven’t been understood and do something about that.

It also

  • tends to limit repetition because people can see you already have their point recorded, and
  • enables you to clarify their views by asking them what words they would prefer you to use if they don’t believe your recording reflects them accurately.

And you end up with an agreed record of the meeting.

Consumers consulted will accept they do not always win the day if they know you listened to them and considered their perspective and any specific suggestions seriously.

No conflict
Ensure that conflict is absent or at least controlled. The focus is on listening.