The Principles of Best Practice in Online Consultation – Part 4

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In previous blogs I’ve looked at the principles of access and engagement (Part 1) in creating a strong vision; selecting appropriate tactics (Part 2), and timing, truthfulness and transparency in Part 3.

The important principles that remain are responsiveness, reporting / evaluation and communicating feedback.

Reporting, analysis and evaluation

Analysis is perhaps the most important stage of the consultation process: if done well, it will paint a clear picture of the community’s reaction to the proposals and enable the consultor to act accordingly.

Every tactic deployed during the consultation should produce results. These should reflect the depth and breadth of the consultation and so may be available in a range of formats. Ideally, they will be both qualitative and quantitative.

In The Art of Consultation, Rhion Jones and Elizabeth Gammell question the accuracy of online communication:

Not long after the new Scottish Parliament opened, we were shown around and during the visits introduced to several innovations, one of which was the eDiscussion forum. What had been the most intense debate? we asked. Proudly we were told that the subject of wind farms had attracted 400-plus postings, a source of considerable satisfaction to shoe who had managed this process. Suitably impressed, we enquired whether this was 200 people who had each posted twice, or maybe only twenty who had posted twenty times each. Alas, no-one knew.

In New Techniques for Risk Management in Planning and Public Consultation, a booklet that I edited for Field Fisher Waterhouse in 2010, David Naylor voices a similar concern a legal perspective:

Various issues need to be considered regarding the management of participation. For example, can anyone who is interested participate? Or is there a need to restrict participation – for example only to those who can show that they fall within a category of persons affected by the proposals? If so, how does the developer or local authority vet / administer a scheme designed to ensure that only permitted participants participate? And how do they ensure that appropriate weight is attributed to people’s input?

The same is true of offline communication, however, and the techniques deployed by ConsultOnline ensure, to the greatest possible extent, that all contributions are legitimate. It does this by requesting full contact details of all respondents and using Google Analytics to provide geographic and demographic data.

Five years after these comments were made, I believe that online consultation has a considerable advantage over offline consultation because of its ability to analyse results quickly, regularly, efficiently and accurately. The standard report details statistical information on website usage, user demographics, an analysis of the means by which users reached the website, specific devices / platforms used, the way in which the website has been used, reports from polls and forums and FAQs received, and an analysis of interaction via social media.

As with any strategic communication, effective evaluation is vital in public consultation. Not only does this benefit future, or ongoing consultations, but it serves the important purpose of demonstrating whether the consultation was effective, which may be necessary if the results present anomalies.

Online communication can be very effectively monitored and evaluated. Reporting is of an extremely high standard, comprising day-by-day website usage; average session times and bounce rates; analysis of the most popular pages; demographic information in relation to location, gender, age and interest; analysis of how people are reaching the website; results per poll / forum / survey / blog comment; maps to depict the location of respondents.

ConsultOnline collates statistical information both for feedback to the client and also for comparison with other project to benefit product development.

Communicate feedback effectively

According to the ONS, If you asked experienced consultees to name the single most unsatisfactory aspect to their experience of public sector consultations, they would reply in one word – ‘feedback’. We suspect that private sector exercises would suffer a similar fate.

Feedback to consultees (and in some cases, regulatory bodies) is vital and the link between the feedback received and the decisions taken should be clear.

Not only should feedback deliver the results of the consultation but is the perfect vehicle to demonstrate the success of the consultation, to publically thank the consultees and to reinforce the consultor’s commitment excellent consultation.

Communicating feedback, and in particular the decisions taken as a result of that information, is crucial but is frequently over-looked.

A consultation website provides an ideal means for communicating this information. ConsultOnline not only posts consultation results online, but also uses its Facebook and Twitter profiles to broadcast the message, directing users to the consultation website. Additionally database of those users who requested an alert when the consultation website was updated are altered to the report being posted online.

This is my final post in the series of blogs on how the principles of best practice in communication can be applied to online consultation. If you haven’t already seen it, please have a look at Scotch Corner Designer Village and let me have any feedback both on ConsultOnline and on these blogs.

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.