Effective online consultation – part 1: planning

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Planning is key to all good consultations. But I’ve learnt from the many online consultations that I’ve run that this is all the more so in online consultation due to the speed with which information can spread across the internet and the quantity of responses that can be received.

So it’s worth bearing in mind the following advice in advance of launching a consultation:

Plan

  • Have a content plan in place – but be flexible.
  • Watch and listen – determine what works best for the particular consultation, when to post and lengths of posts. Google Analytics is a very helpful tool for understanding user patterns.

Research

  • Use stakeholder research and analysis to gain an understanding of the likely take-up.

Use a consultation mandate to establish aims and objectives and guidance on usage

  • Ensure that the consultation mandate is displayed prominently – or that its content is expressed clearly.
  • Put rules for engagement in place via a user guide.
  • Communicate the purpose and passage of the consultation. Make the timeline clear and adhere to it where at all possible; where this is not possible, ensure that the audience is fully informed.
  • Be realistic about how quickly you can respond to questions raised online and communicate your commitment to respond at the start of the consultation.

 

Prioritise access

  • Avoid making the online consultation too complicated: always consider the less digitally aware when drafting web content and functionality.
  • Consider the benefits of making all (or specific) polls and forums available only to local residents by requiring that they register using a postal address. The importance of registration is three-fold:
    • The proposed development will have a greater impact on those in a specific local area, and so it is important that local residents are given a priority in shaping the proposals.
    • The more detailed the information from the local community, the more value it has. If a developer understands not only what the community feels, but where certain views originate geographically, results are more valid.
    • The consultation report will have added validity if responses can be identified by individual and location.
  • Bear in mind that registration can deter involvement. If using a registration process, ensure that this is quick and simple, and doesn’t demand so much information as to be off-putting.
  • Let people register and get started quickly. Only those with a strong objection to a proposal will persist with an onerous registration process.

Select tactics with careful consideration

  • Use a variety of online tactics providing the tactics are in line with the consultation objectives and deliver meaningful results.
  • Aim to use a combination of qualitative and quantitative tactics online.
  • Ensure that all tactics, where possible, include an opportunity to respond – if only linking to a Contact Us page.

Remember that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. And so it follows that if you succeed in planning, you stand a much greater chance of succeeding!

 

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.