Public consultations: why are they important and how do we make them count?
Public consultations are carried out by all kinds of organisations for all kinds of reasons. We certainly make good use of them at ASC. But what makes them so important? Read on to find out more…
Public consultations are particularly vital for organisations like ASC whose focus is on building trust with many stakeholders. In fact, they’re so important, they have an entire clause to themselves in Codes of Good Practice set out by ISEAL, an international body set up to improve sustainability systems.
At ASC, consultations are so important to us we run at least two rounds of consultations when developing new standards – but that’s not all. They’re also used when we are reviewing or updating our current standards. They even form part of every single farm certification. Part of the audit process is a period of public consultation where anyone can have their say on the farm.
Public consultations are important for a few reasons. One is engagement. What this means is working with all interested groups and people in a meaningful way. Something like responsible farmed seafood has a lot of stakeholders who are potentially interested. This can include (among others) farmers, local communities, auditors, environmental NGOs, governments, and of course consumers.
If we only engage with one or two of these groups, the others may feel like their views are not being heard, and as a result may not trust the programme. Trust is hugely important to ASC – it is because of the trust in our label that consumers and retailers seek it out, which rewards certified farmers and encourages more to follow suit.
Without meaningful engagement, this trust is hard to build. One way to ensure engagement is through public consultations – taking the time to invite opinions and suggestions from all interested stakeholders
(By the way, if you’re not sure what we mean by stakeholders, check out this blog for an explanation!)
Another important reason is expertise. We have a very diverse and knowledgeable team at ASC, with decades (maybe centuries!) of experience in the seafood sector between us. But we would never presume we know everything! Every stakeholder brings their own experiences, point of view, and knowledge, and the more people you ask the more of that you get to tap into.
It is this expertise that means an organisation should never view public consultations as something they do for their stakeholders, or a job that simply needs to be ticked off. This is a two-way street with benefits for the people being consulted and the people doing the consulting.
This is especially true in a truly global industry like seafood. A shrimp farmer will have different experiences and expertise to a mussel farmer. But a shrimp farmer in Vietnam may also have very different experiences to a shrimp farmer in Ecuador. This is a diverse industry in every sense, and public consultations help take advantage of that diversity and ensure it is reflected in our work.
Making it meaningful
That’s why they’re important. But how do you ensure a public consultation actually meets the needs of your stakeholders and your organisation? How do you make sure it isn’t simply a box-ticking exercise, but something meaningful?
ISEAL’s Codes of Good Practice, mentioned above, includes a great deal on ensuring public consultations are meaningful, and as a full ISEAL member ASC ensures it meets these codes. If you’re just after a summary, a few important things to consider are below.
Opportunity and transparency
Stakeholders should have plenty of opportunity to fill out the consultation – they will all have their day jobs to be getting on with after all. ASC’s public consultations always last at least 60 days for this reason.
They will need to know about it in the first place, of course. Transparency is an important part of public consultations. Stakeholders need to know how and when they can provide feedback. And if certain groups might be underrepresented, or might be harder to reach, it’s important to be more proactive in seeking out their feedback. Quietly opening a consultation and hoping people find it isn’t enough. That’s why at ASC our consultations are widely publicised, and proactively supported with webinars, emails, and other communications.
Finally, for a consultation to be meaningful, you have to take on board the feedback. At ASC our team goes through every response – they’re an integral part of the process when developing or reviewing standards. And to ensure trust and transparency, a summary of responses is published online.
Interested in getting involved? You can check whether any public consultations are currently open, on our Programme Improvements page. But you don’t have to wait until a consultation is running to provide feedback: we welcome feedback on the programme at any time. Find out how to get in touch about our standards, a specific farm audit, or the programme generally on this page.