The future of online consultation

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The communications theorist Grunig defined excellence in communication as that which promotes the use of research, dialogue and consultation to manage conflict, improve understanding and build constructive relationships with a wide range of publics.

This seemed a good basis on which to consider the merits of online consultation in theoretical terms.  And my analysis (see my earlier blog posts for the full discussion) is that online consultation is more than capable of addressing these principles:

  • The internet is by far the most powerful research resource. A substantial proportion of information that is required in researching stakeholder groups and necessary background information is freely and readily available.
  • Online consultation allows for real-time dialogue and consultation through a variety of means. Voice recognition, for example, is breaking down barriers and enabling people to communicate online in the way in which suits them best.
  • Conflict, or crisis / issues management is frequently managed online. There many instances in which this process moves offline but the internet is probably the single most important tool in managing conflict.
  • Creating a constructive relationship is based initially on knowledge, which is best sourced online; similarly relationships can be formed and developed entirely online.
  • A wide range of publics is best identified online – initially. The internet may supply up to 90% of the stakeholder information required for a consultation, but the remaining (and very important) element is often best addressed through personal contact.

As communication increasingly moves online, so too will consultation move online, and ConsultOnline projects to date show that online consultation can be successful in practice as well as in theory.

Online consultation cannot replace offline consultation entirely until 100% of any local community is able and confident to communicate online.  To some, a screen will never compensate for a human face and for that reason face-to-contact should not be fully abandoned.  However, there are many advantages that online consultation has over offline consultation: in many cases it is easier for people to take part, it is time and cost effective, it is clear and uncomplicated, information can be readily available to all and discussions open and visible to all.  The opportunities for evaluation are vast and results can be analysed and communicated very effectively.

Ultimately the online consultation can help make consultation fun, and potentially address the serious issue of consultation fatigue.  In doing so, managers can increase engagement and increase buy-in from employees / service users, developers can gain a clear mandate for a planning application and many more sectors can benefit.

If you haven’t done so, please see my previous blogs in which online consultation is discussed in more detail, and let me have any thoughts.

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.