Deliberative Consultation across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight:
Possible Merger of the Two Fire and Rescue Services

Hampshire Fire Authority logo Isle of Wight Council logo ORS was commissioned by both the Isle of Wight Council and Hampshire Combined Fire Authority to facilitate and report the important consultations about the potential merger of the two organisations. ORS was in a unique position of trust – in serving two masters equally while ensuring that in both cases (Hampshire and the Isle of Wight) the highest professional standards were maintained and independent reports prepared for both authorities.

On behalf of the Isle of Wight Council, ORS undertook the following consultations:

  • Public opinion survey (distributed to 45,000 homes)
  • Eight focus groups across the Island (usually 8-10 participants per group)
  • Eight public meetings across the Island (up to 150 participants per group)
  • Four stakeholder forums with business, voluntary and statutory sectors
  • Employee forums with whole-time and retained fire-fighters, and support staff

A similar but slightly smaller consultation programme was carried out in Hampshire – where the issues were not nearly so controversial.

Sampling Approach

A variety of sampling methods were used to recruit the individuals involved in the consultation.

Participants for the eight focus groups across the Island were selected by using a sample of random telephone numbers and then incrementing the numbers to ensure that there was no bias for ex directory homes. There was also a quota set for different genders and class of individuals.

The eight public meetings across the Island were advertised in the local press and relevant publications.

Four stakeholder forums with business, voluntary and statutory sectors were recruited by contacting local businesses and also organisations known to both FRSs who would have views on the future changes.

Achieving Objectives

The consultation agenda and background information given to the meetings was sensitive – because we had to provide full information about the relatively poor performance of the Isle of Wight FRS and the financial benefits of joining with Hampshire, without in any way manipulating people’s opinions.

In order to ensure the meetings were as informed as possible (without shaping the participants’ views), ORS prepared a PowerPoint presentation on the implications of the three options.

The conduct of the open public meetings was challenging for two main reasons. First, quite complex concepts, unfamiliar to most participants, had to be presented clearly and then discussed fairly. Second, in a number of meetings some highly motivated and interested parties sought to obstruct the presentation of some information. However, both of these difficulties were successfully overcome in a consultation process that was hailed as a model of its kind.

For the Stakeholder Forums and most Focus Groups, ORS used what ‘real-time reporting’ – in which inter-active Powerpoint presentations are used both to present basic stimulus material and to record people’s ideas during the course of the meetings. People’s points of view are captured ‘publicly’ as they are expressed – both to focus people’s minds on the discussion and to provide ‘outputs’ for refinement and editing as the discussion proceeds.

The results of these events had to be available for public scrutiny and possible challenge.

Biggest Challenges

The deliberative consultation programme was not without its difficulties, though. On the Isle of Wight ORS faced three particular challenges.

The first was that initially both Hampshire and the Isle of Wight Councils intended to consult on only two options – namely, whether to merge or develop systematic and contractual collaboration. However, this approach to the issues was widely denounced by both the public and stakeholders – so, in accordance with ORS’ advice, the range of options was widened to include the status quo of retaining two stand-alone fire services. This meant that the deliberative consultation process was much fairer and that both Councils were able to avoid challenges to the process.

The second challenge was that Cabinet members and some elected Members of the Isle of Wight Council wished to attend all of the stakeholder and public meetings in order to listen to the debates. Their commitment to the process was commendable and very much appreciated – but ORS had to ensure that they did not seek to lead or in any way influence the outcomes of the discussions. By being clear about the purpose and nature of the meetings, and by giving clear directions to everyone present, we achieved a satisfactory outcome.

The third challenge was that although there were demonstrable financial benefits to the Isle of Wight (not through dubious efficiency savings but because, following a merger, the cost of its fire service would not fall exclusively on the Islanders but would be generated from both the Island and Hampshire County Council’s much bigger population) some interests wanted to suppress this information. ORS had to maintain a deliberative atmosphere so that people could calmly consider the key information without implying that such financial information should determine people’s views and the outcome of the consultation. We sought to emphasis the wide range of criteria on which people might judge and make up their minds about the favoured outcome.