Understanding of the potential challenges from the outset is necessary in order for them to be addressed – so what are the reasons for common problems?
- Failure to engage with a wider audience, specifically the ‘hard to reach,’ and to gain responses from the ‘silent majority’.
- Apathy and consultation fatigue.
- A lack of clarity about the aims of participation leading to disaffection.
- Failure to explain the situation and its limitations effectively.
- A lack of creativity resulting in a lack of motivation.
- Negatives responses, perhaps as a result of a campaigning by pressure groups, and negative media involvement.
Failure to respond
- A failure to respond to or act on the outcomes of participation.
- Lack of awareness of opportunities to participate.
- Provision of too much or too little information, or failure to simplify complex information.
- Disappointment in the consultation by those being consulted.
- Unwelcome involvement of those with a political agenda beyond the scope of the consultation.
Resistance within the development team
- An internal culture which is inclined to limit consultation, lacks trust in the process, provides too little information, too late, and fails to listen to feedback.
- Lack of dedicated resources (people, funding, technology).
- Unreasonable timing, causing a consultation to be rushed, ill thought-through or otherwise compromised.
What is immediately apparent from this list is that at least half of the problems likely to arise are in the domain of the communications team: issues relating to access, clarity, communication, creativity, failure to respond, inadequate promotion, information, resistance, resources and time are common issues with communications generally and can each be addressed prior to the consultation commencing.
Advice on how to combat the external issues is provided in greater depth in my book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide. In writing about addressing the challenges, it became immediately clear to me that almost all problems can be resolved by following the strategic process: situational and issues analysis and pre-consultation dialogue enables the communications team to identify many of the potential problems that may occur, understand and manage expectations, and determine the most appropriate tactics to use; stakeholder analysis will identify the range of local audiences to be involved, from political and community leaders to those regarded as ‘hard to reach’, and develop and understanding of how best to involve them; the aims and objectives, as communicated through the consultation mandate, will help address any criticisms of the consultation in terms of its breath, audiences and use of the results; consistent messaging in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions document will ensure that the whole development team is able to address difficult questions in a public setting and agreement with the local authority over the strategic overview will provide the basis for a good relationship between the development team and local planning authority. Resource allocation will prevent issues such as capacity to respond and monitoring will help identify any problems as they occur sot that they can be acted upon quickly. Finally, monitoring, analysis and evaluation all play an important role in explaining the reasons for consultation results.
Extract from Chapter 2 Planning: effective communication through consultation by Penny Norton in Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice, to be published by Routledge in June 2020.