Consultation is great – but this one was a real mess

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It was a straightforward enough task – find out what people thought about the location of their local library and then weigh up the results to decide whether or not to move it.

But what should have been a simple exercise in gathering views on the future of Cosham library has ended up becoming something of a laughing stock.

First, as The News first revealed, the questionnaire seeking the opinions of users asked baffling questions about sexual orientation and identity.

These were irrelevant even for the adult participants – but it was a particularly perplexing oversight that they were also asked of children.

Now we learn of a further problem – that the addresses and email addresses of respondents were accidentally published on the city council’s website for all to see.

The council protests that this was not a ‘serious breach’ of privacy or data protection but the fact that it happened at all is cause enough for concern.

We hear the word ‘consultation’ a lot – and it seems hardly any decision worth taking is made without an opinion-gathering exercise taking place first. There are people who are already cynical about these processes and wonder whether consultations are all too often just a paper exercise ahead of making a decision that was on the cards anyway.

Concerns about authorities gathering irrelevant data as part of the exercise, and then going on to make personal information public, will do nothing to help persuade them to take part in future surveys.

In the case of Cosham Library, the consultation appears to have been a well-meaning process that was appallingly executed.

The swift apology over the publication of the data is welcome, but it should not have been needed in the first place.