Image shows Adam’s dogs:  Fred & George.

It occurred to me the other day that running a consultation exercise is a lot like letting our dogs out for a wee.

Let me explain.

Me and my wife have two dogs. Fred and George (my wife likes Harry Potter). They’re great. Anyone who has a dog will know the pre-bed routine, letting them out so they can spend a penny.

Taking them on a quick walk often seems a bit of a chore so very often we’ll let them out in the garden instead. Sometimes we’ll stay outside with them, you know, for a bit of encouragement. I give them a couple of minutes. My wife usually sticks it out for longer.

However long we give them, it’s fair to say this approach isn’t always successful. It’s at this point that me and my wife take a very different view.

Wife: “Have they had wees?”

Me: “No, but that’s their fault, I gave them the opportunity.”

Wife: “You miserable sod (or words to that effect), go take them for a quick walk.”

I usually protest on the grounds that they’ll never learn. But inevitably I succumb and within a minute the deed is done. I mutter and curse as we return back to the house.

One night while waiting for them in the garden I started to see striking similarities between this pre-bed charade and the process of consultation I’ve been involved in over the years. It didn’t take long to come up with 6 lessons.

Image shows Adam’s dogs.

1. Giving them the opportunity isn’t enough

I’m not making a lot of effort for Fred and George really. Open the door, usher them outside and then give them a few minutes to do what I want them to do. It’s hardly surprising that it often ends in failure.

Similarly, just because you give people the opportunity it doesn’t mean they’re going to engage or respond. I see it a lot with dry, jargon-filled, lengthy surveys. Technically ‘open’ for a couple of months, but with limited promotion and no alternative ways of engaging or having your say.

How you approach consultation is everything. Know your audience. Have a clear plan. Think it through.

Opportunity is important, but it needs to mean something to people and they need to be confident that they understand it.

2. Doing it properly inevitably saves you time and effort in the long run

In the time I’ve stood outside in vain I could have taken Fred and George out for a quick walk around the block and be done with it. But the garden always seems like the easy option at the time.

The same can be said for cutting corners in consultation exercises. If it’s important, don’t default to the easy option. Put some thought and effort in. If you don’t get the response you want, will you have to go back to the drawing board?

For all the amazing benefits and improvements in this digital age, I do think online methods have made some of us a bit lazy. It’s so easy to knock up and push out an online survey. It’s low cost and anyone can do it. “Quick, we need to get a survey monkey out.” Quick and easy doesn’t necessarily equal fit-for-purpose and useful.

Save yourself some time and resource in the long run, do it right first time.

3. It pays to make more effort with the young ‘uns

George is about to turn 4 and he’s pretty compliant these days. He knows the score and with a bit of persuasion will have a wee so he can return to the comfort of the house.

Fred is 18 months old. What works for George doesn’t work for Fred. He looks at us crest-fallen: “you want me to have a wee? I just want to play fetch”.

The same goes for consultation. What works for one audience probably won’t work for another. I’m a big fan of mixed methods. Used in the right way, not only do they give you a range and depth of insight but they give more people the opportunity to feed into the exercise.

Image shows Adam’s dogs:  Fred & George.

4. People (and dogs) see through tokenism

Fred and George know what’s coming now. By day the garden is filled with fun and games. A happy place. But at night the humans have no intention of making it fun.

Yet they long for that fun. They sit outside each night looking at us in the hope tonight will be different. A quick game of fetch first? No, we just want them to do what we want. We’re not interested in what they want.

It can be the same for consultations. Do people want to complete yet another survey about service priorities or reductions? “What’s the point, they don’t listen” is a common response.

That’s where communication across the whole process is important. Don’t just pop out of the woodwork to push your survey, then go into hiding again. Tell people how you’re using the findings to inform your decisions, what changes you’ve made as a result of the feedback. It means something to them and they’ll be more likely to take part in the future.

I suppose there’s also something in this analogy about making exercises fun. Dogs like fun, and us humans do too, I think. There are some good examples of gamification but I’m as guilty as the next of defaulting to the comfort of a survey.

5. Conditions have an impact

I know by now that if it’s raining there’s no chance Fred and George will step out into the garden, let alone have a wee. If we have friends around, they’re not interested either. There’s too much going on to concentrate on the job at hand.

We have to work around these conditions, whether it’s taking them out when there aren’t distractions or sticking waterproofs on and going to the effort of a walk.

It’s no different in the world of consultation. I’ve found surveys and exercises over periods like summer and Christmas are best avoided if you can. It’s hard enough getting people engaged as it is, without the distractions associated with these times of year.

Another condition to watch out for is when too many exercises and surveys are out at the same time. No-one likes survey fatigue, although the exception to the rule here would be something like a really joined up programme of consultation where different surveys and exercises can piggy back on another.

6. Your communication can be futile if the method is wrong

Considering all of the points above, it feels like it comes down to two things: method and communication. You need to get both right. One without the other and you’ll be chasing your tail.

Get your method and approach wrong and your communications will be a lot like what I do when I let Fred and George out. Pleading with them to do what you want when it’s not what they want.

And no matter how bob on your method or approach is, you need to back it up with the right communication and messages.

So if you ever need to run a consultation exercise, spare a thought for Fred and George. Make it about them, your audience, not you. Don’t default to the garden, put some effort in and go for a walk.