I think it was Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon strip, who said that the word ‘consult’ comes from a contraction of ‘to con’ and ‘to insult’. Yesterday, I came across an archetypal example of what he meant, courtesy of Brent Council. They have launched an online survey regarding a new logo and messaging for their waste collection service.
Here are the first two questions:
One final question – does this survey make you feel that carrying on living is important, or not important?
It so accurately sums up everything that is wrong with ‘consultation’ that I wondered if it was a parody.
I suppose it should be said that consultation can be a useful and necessary thing, especially when you present people with a limited range of viable options that have meaningful differences between them.
More often, consultation is a hollow, life-sapping, time-wasting distraction for people who are too lazy, lily-livered and feckless to make even the smallest decision for themselves. (I offer no opinion on which camp Brent Council falls into – I’m just describing two ends of the scale here.)
It doesn’t help when the questions you ask are almost literally meaningless. Take those first four questions. Precisely how bad would a logo have to be to make you feel that recycling is unimportant? “Yes, I’ve seen the data, I understand we’re creating mountains of waste for future generations, I get that we’re destroying natural resources unnecessarily… but ever since I saw that logo, I can’t help feeling it doesn’t really matter.”
I haven’t even mentioned question 16 of the survey, which asks you to choose between 15 (fifteen) very slightly different copy messages. They might as well include an extra question asking people to come and sit at their desk for eight hours a day, Monday to Friday, and pick up their shopping on the way home.
Like reality television, consultation exercises are usually a carefully manufactured gesture towards openness and involvement without actually being anything of the sort. Scott Adams had it right - they're not just neutrally pointless, they actively express a thinly veiled contempt for their audience. Like so many online surveys, this one is hosted on SurveyMonkey. You can't help feeling the clue's in the name.