Why did the Combined Authority’s transport consultation generate so few responses?

It printed hundreds of paper documents yet only received sixteen responses by paper, and five by email.

You can read the paper from officers at the Combined Authority that the Board of local council leaders and the Mayor will be debating at Item 4.1 of the meeting papers here. The appendix is the formal feedback analysis.

The second half of my recent blogpost covering reports on the water crisis and transport strategy covers some of the headline findings (which Gemma Gardner also covered in the Cambridge Independent here.) Yet when you think how few paper responses came back, let alone the online ones, something went badly wrong.

The formal analysis covers all of the methods they used to engage the public.

Above – leaving consultation documents outside libraries and supermarkets

I took several of these and placed them in Road Library and pinned a couple up in my local co-op convenience store. Doesn’t look like it did much good though.

Will warmer weather making handing out paper copies easier?

Always a tough call in a pandemic, but would it have been better to have had individuals who had been briefed on the consultation handing them out in person? Could they have been handed out say at specific events? For example a headline concert at The Corn Exchange or outside stadia before football matches? Again, time to browse before the event starts. The lack of poster displays at bus shelters and public transport interchanges still baffles me.

Stakeholder meetings (mindful of the ongoing Covid Pandemic)

They also had a stakeholder event on 19 November 2021 which listed the 23 stakeholders attended the event, that included:
• Paul Milner, Head of Planning, University of Cambridge
• Dr Andy Williams, VP Cambridge Strategy, AstraZeneca
• Rebecca Stephens, Cityfibre
• Mike Herd, Michael Herd Consulting
• Mario Caccamo, CEO, NIAB
• Richard Grisenthwaite, UK Lead, Arm
• Sian Nash, Chief Operating Officer, Wellcome Sanger Institute
• Alex Plant, Director, Anglia Water
• Jane Paterson-Todd, CEO, Cambridge Ahead
• Dan Thorp, Director, Cambridge Ahead
• Emma Wood, Consultant, Cambridge Science Park
• Claire Ruskin, Executive Director, Cambridge Network
• Richard Holdaway, East of England, Institute of Directors
• Helena Coe, Policy Manager, Confederation of British Industry
• Lauren Dovey, Federation of Small Businesses
• Harvey Bibby, Ely & East Cambs, Cambridgeshire Chamber of Commerce
• John Gordon, Partner, Arcadis
• Caroline Foster, Senior Development Manager, Urban & Civic
• Rebecca Britton, Regional Director, Urban & Civic

• Rachel Nicholls, Principal, Peterborough Regional College
• Martin Lawrence – Director, Metalwork
• Elliot Page, Cambridge East Transport Strategy, Marshall Group
• Olga Feidman, Transport Lead, Arcadis

They also gave briefings to:

• Rachel Northfield, Head of Estates, and Katherine Smith, Head of Sustainability, at
Cambridge University Hospitals on 2nd December 2021.
Cambridge Biomedical Campus Travel and Transport Group on 7th December 2021.

“Hang on – how come hardly any of the hospital staff knew about the transport proposals when they had representatives who had face-to-face briefings?”

A pandemic in winter time is probably not the best time to be doing a consultation – especially when everyone is stressed and staff in healthcare in particular are overworked in the face of chronic shortages.

Furthermore, not everyone answered all of the questions. For example ‘only 103 respondents, equating to 18.1% of feedback submissions’ responded to the question: “How strongly do you believe the updated vision is the right future for transport in the region?”

What does the above question imply? It implies respondents:

  • have some understanding of the geographical area the Combined Authority is talking about
  • have some understanding about the current state of transport issues and public transport provision in that geographical area
  • have an understanding of what the previous vision for the future for transport in that region was
  • have an understanding of what the new vision is and how it differs from the old one

All of the above are very strong assumptions. As it turned out, they turned out to be far too strong, hence in part the very low response rates. That’s not to say people don’t have strong opinions about transport issues. When I was in hospital last month I was able to spend time listening to healthcare professionals and staff across the many grades and specialisms on what their transport issues were – I wrote about what they told me here.

“Why are our consultations failing to generate informed responses from the public?”

The editor of the Queen Edith’s newsletter, Chris Rand, was quoted in the Cambridge Independent last month on a similar issue with the Greater Cambridge Local Plan.

Above – ‘Is six weeks long enough?’ Chris Rand says it isn’t.

“Didn’t The Government say something about improving how consultations are done in the very distant past?”

Yes – during my civil service days way back in 2008 – the Government (then Gordon Brown’s Labour Government) issued a guidance document. It was a very long time ago but the principles remain sound, even though they were written before social media became mainstream as we know today.

You can read the 2008 document here.

The most important things to consider are the consultation criteria.

  • When to consult – Formal consultation should take place at a stage when there is scope to influence the policy outcome.
  • Duration of consultation exercises Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible.
  • Clarity of scope and impact Consultation documents should be clear about the consultation process, what is being proposed, the scope to influence and the expected costs and benefits of the proposals.
  • Accessibility of consultation exercises Consultation exercises should be designed to be accessible to, and clearly targeted at, those people the exercise is intended to reach.
  • The burden of consultation Keeping the burden of consultation to a minimum is essential if consultations are to be effective and if consultees’ buy-in to the process is to be obtained.
  • Responsiveness of consultation exercises Consultation responses should be analysed carefully and clear feedback should be provided to participants following the consultation.
  • Capacity to consult Officials running consultations should seek guidance in how to run an effective consultation exercise and share what they have learned from the experience.
“Consultations should normally last for 12 weeks” – so why wasn’t this one?

You’ll have to ask the decision-makers.

Furthermore, organisations need to be much more clear in their own minds the sort of information they want back from those they are consulting. For example I tend not to read much into charts that say what percentage was in favour and what percentage was against unless the numbers of people involved are very, very high or the people consulted was a random weighted sample of the population in the geographical area. As the numbers responding were so incredibly low, the percentages for/against are meaningless. Really.

“What does this mean for both organisations and also for the media?”

Employ people with an understanding of statistics, and/or send your staff off to get trained in basic data analysis.

“That sounds familiar.”

It should. A certain politically-aware dragon fairy demanded this in the Cambridge City Council Elections in 2014. 89 voters agreed.

“All new paid management posts (in particular full-time posts, irrespective of whether internal or external) in both public institutions and charitable organisations to have basic social and digital media skills in a corporate environment, and basic data analysis skills as essential competencies

Theme 3 – Unleashing talent in our public institutions – Puffles the Dragon Fairy’s manifesto for Cambridge 2014.

Note I wrote the above in 2014. Part of the solution for organisations involves finding out what skills your staff already have – so as to find out what gaps there are that your organisation needs to fill.

“A skills audit, as discussed, will help identify the areas of need. Be sure to make training accessible to the different segments of your workforce, including part-time workers”

Countering skills mismatches through people management – CIPD 2017
“When is a public consultation the right point to proceed?”

Although this guide Making Policy Better by the Institute for Government was published some years ago, there are a number of things within it that local policy makers need to take note of. The same is true with this guide on making new laws from The Government, which was recently updated. Note just because these things were issued by the Government, it does not always mean that they follow it. Especially where a minister wants to drive through a very partisan and divisive policy against what experts, evidence bases, and even the protesting public might say. At the same time, what such guidance cannot make a judgement call on is the subjective merits of any given policy. That is a political decision. What the policy-making processes do is provide evidence bases to inform the recommendations of public officials (in both local government & the civil service), and judgements of ministers, mayors, and executive councillors. Finally, there are a whole host of other methods – mainly at the start of the policy-making process (Such as those from Involve UK here) that can be used to find out what the public or specific interest & stakeholder groups think of options and proposals.

“So…what’s going to change with local transport policy?”

The confirmation of the CAM Metro plans being scrapped following the Mayoral elections of May 2021.

“Following extensive public engagement and feedback from constituent Councils there are likely to be a very significant number of changes to the LTCP in relation to its content when compared to the current LTP. The suggested amendments reflect the changing policy environment within which the Combined Authority and partners are now operating,”

Local Transport and Connectivity Plan Update for Combined Authority Board Mtg for 26 Jan 2022.

The previous Local Transport Plan signed off by the previous mayor James Palmer is here.

In the full analysis document, they summarised at the end what the main points from the stakeholders’ meeting were. (Item 4.1 Appendix, p44). One that stood out for me was:

“More than one size fits all

  • travel to work;
  • travel to learn;
  • travel for health and
  • travel for leisure”

Furthermore: “The need to connect to Market towns, not just Cambridge”

Which is one of the reasons why I often come back to this little map from a blogpost where I explored some very long term possibilities about linking the smaller towns around Cambridge by light rail but in a loop rather than A-to-B commuter-style lines.

Above – This assumes a Cambourne-Cambridge-Haverhill light rail line is built as proposed by the Cambridge Connect Project.

What this diagram shows is the relatively short geographical distance between Haverhill and Saffron Walden, neither of which are connected to Cambridge by suburban rail. Hence the traffic congestion on the roads in rush hour between them. Link Haverhill to Saffron Walden (and Saffron Hall music venue), then onto Duxford Imperial War Museum, Sawston village and the new football ground of Cambridge City Football Club, then finally back to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus/Addenbrooke’s/Cambridge South, and then onto Cambridge Station and you have a southern loop. Given the close proximity to Cambridge of Haverhill, some of you may be interested on the issues they are dealing with – see https://onehaverhill.co.uk/taskgroups/ – mindful of the number of healthcare staff and further education students who commute into Cambridge from there.

Transport East’s consultation

See Transport East here. They encourage Cambridgeshire residents to respond.

Again, the frustrating thing about administrative borders becoming barriers. Cambridge is less than 15 miles away from places inside Transport East’s area, but is still outside the geographical zone as far as their direct area of responsibility is concerned. The challenge they have is having to cope with the impact of Cambridge while having very limited influence on its transport policies without the consent of the Combined Authority. (This should not be a problem as far as the Mayor is concerned – my issue is one of institutional silos). You could say a similar issue is true with South Cambridgeshire – little say on what Cambridge does, but significantly affected by what it does – as former Cllr Tim Wotherspoon (Cons – Cottenham) told me recently in response to Minister George Freeman’s comments yesterday – with a response from Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s) on the hit that Cambridge’s residential communities are taking with such high housing costs – especially for those of us on low incomes.

So actually both have a point – and in the case of Mr Wotherspoon – a former Chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly, he provides another example of local Conservatives speaking out against the policies of their own ministers in Government. That is to say he has a familiarity with the detail of the issues. What the local electorate makes of the differing views within the same political party remains to be seen – but it is a reminder that political parties inevitably are coalitions of people with different interests. How you keep the party-political splits away from public viewing is something that has been in the news recently. And applies to all the main parties.

“What’s the solution to low consultation response rates?”

Acknowledging the problem first.

Once local government can do this and get into the detail of why, then we can start looking at solutions.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

%d bloggers like this: