Having recently completed the first draft of a book on innovation in public consultation, I have interviewed many people in the profession. It was interesting to find that in most cases, public consultations are run by planning consultants, in many cases by PR / consultation specialists but sometimes delegated to junior administrative staff with the online aspects of a consultation looked after by a web team or digital agency.
While all of these individuals have a valid role to play, I am concerned that with the rise of online consultation, consultations are being handed over to those who have excellent technical expertise but lack an understanding of communications and strategy.
The best consultations are invariably those which are based on a strategy. A strategic approach ensures that necessary factors are taken into consideration, establishes direction and ensures that the team responsible approaches the consultation with shared objectives. Engagement activities can be wide-ranging and creative, but the logical sequence of a strategy ensures consistency.
Typically, a consultation strategy will include:
- Pre-consultation dialogue – to involve the community or its representatives in the most effective approach to consultation
- Situational analysis – to fully understand the issues impacting on the consultation, both internal and external
- Stakeholder / publics analysis and research – to ensure that stakeholders are appropriately targeted
- Aims and objectives – to guide those running the consultation and provide a means for evaluation
- Messages – to ensure that consultees understand the remit of the consultation, its objectives and limitations, and to that the consultation team speaks with one voice
- Strategy and tactics – to put in place a methodology for the consultation which is appropriate to its aims and objectives and also to re resources available
- Analysis – to process the results of the consultation
- Evaluation – to demonstrate that the consultation was effective and where necessary to explain any inconsistencies
- Reporting and feedback – to thank consultees for taking part, to demonstrate that their responses have been taken into account and to inform them of the decision taken
The best consultations are based on the type of two-way communication extolled by communications theorists such as Grunig and Dozier in relation to ‘excellent’ public relations. Good consultation is a transparent, symmetrical approach to communication which is organised and methodical.
The most important issue for online consultation is that no matter how good a consultation website, communicating links and encouraging people to take part is imperative and must be constant – perhaps more so with an intangible service such as a website than a series of public exhibitions and meetings. Consultation is a service and not a product. Creating a website for a developer is not consultation: it is promotion and effective communication throughout the process that constitutes consultation, and for this reason, consultation should remain within the domain of the communications professional.
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.