Does a consultation need a strategy?

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The simple answer, from my point of view is yes – all good consultations will have a consultation strategy.

 

A strategy puts in place clear aims and objectives which ensure that the consultation team shares values, expectations and understanding. It also ensures that a wide range of relevant factors are identified at the start of the process and that those are taken into consideration as the consultation progresses. The logical sequence of a strategy, however wide-ranging the engagement activities, provides consistency and ensures that all members of the team approach the consultation with shared objectives.

 

Formulating a strategy need not require substantial understanding of communications theory or days spent grafting and crafting. And the benefits are numerous.   In many planning applications – such as NSIPs or those carried out by a public body – a clearly defined strategy is required by law.  This alone speaks volumes as to its importance.   Although a strategy may not be a legal requirement in other planning applications, most require a consultation report which details the approach taken, an evaluation of the results and the future direction of the project based on consultation responses and its success is dependent on there being a coherent strategy.

 

Transparency – always an important characteristic of consultation – is another benefit of a strategic approach. Without it, the launch of a consultation may be met with confusion.  It is recommended that, at the implementation of a consultation, the strategy is communicated in a consultation mandate which sets out the vision, objectives and structure of a consultation and shows how results will be received, analysed and acted upon.  This can avoid confusion among third parties, whether special interest groups, local residents, statutory consultees or public bodies.

 

A strategic approach also allows for resources – whether financial, human or time – to be allocated and planned, thus ensuring that the consultation is run efficiently.

 

A common mistake in planning, often despite better intentions, is for a strategy to become a retrospective document: the team launches into a series of consultation tactics (perhaps based on past practice, experience or recommendation) results are collated, and then in a need to create a meaningful consultation report, a ‘strategy’ is drafted to justify the approach.

 

Worse still, and all too common to the industry, is to ‘predict and provide’ (to make assumptions about what a development should comprise and put the proposals in place with little or no consultation); ‘plan, announce and defend’ (to put in place a development proposal, inform local residents and attempt to counter any negative sentiment) or to ‘plan, monitor, manage’ (to put in place a development proposal, gather opinion and then attempt to promote only the positive -opinion).  Each of these examples is a distinctly top-down approach and makes scant use of consultation.  Of course developments require varying levels of public consultation but those which are seen to be avoiding any meaningful dialogue are setting themselves up for failure.

 

If it be said that strategy is a waste of time, it is only in the case of a retrospective or tokenistic ‘strategy’ that this is true.

 

Penny Norton

Penny’s book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is published by Routledge in June 2017.  Please email Penny to receive notification of its publication.