Researching likely consultees at the start of the consultation process ensures that the consultation strategy takes into account the appropriate number of residents to be targeted, the diversity within the community and an understanding of where power lies. Without it, the consultation runs the risk of being asymmetrical and failing to reach certain sections of the community, which often includes the ‘silent majority’ – those quietly accepting of the proposals.
A thorough understanding of the community also informs later stages of the strategy development, for example, ensuring that tactics are well suited to specific groups. It enables the consultor to better understand the issues that motivate groups and individuals – something which may not be immediately apparent or may contradict initial perceptions. In a recent case, a political party supported a policy to bring about housing on a specific site, but despite being a member of that party, the local ward member personally opposed the proposal because of his fears for the repercussions on the local golf club, of which he was a member. Party allegiances prevented him from speaking out in opposition to the scheme, but nevertheless he deliberately avoided constructive dialogue with the development team. A better understanding of the councillor’s view at the early stages of the consultation would have enabled the team to communicate more effectively with the individual.
Stakeholder and political research tends to be interlinked, as local politicians are inevitably significant players in the local community. Similarly, communities of interest and communities of place co-exist (exacerbated by the increase in online communities) and most individuals fall into a number of categories.
Special interest groups are easy to identify, but thorough, ongoing, stakeholder research is necessary to identify less formalised groups and patterns of interest. Comprehensive stakeholder and political research enables a much better understanding of those likely to take part in the consultation, and importantly, unearth useful and relevant insights. Typically the exercise will identify the following:
- The demographic profile of the area
- Local organisations – from community organisations to businesses and the issues affecting them
- Community / political / religious and special interest groups, their leadership, membership, policies and influences
- The political make-up of the council
- Planning committee members and ward members
- Political movers and shakers, including those with informal influence both within the council and in the wider community
- The likely impact of any upcoming elections on both the political make-up and individual roles
- Historic planning applications, particularly those for the site in question, or similar proposals which have been considered previously
- Likely attitudes towards the development proposals among these stakeholders
- The history of local opinion towards proposed developments for the site, if any
Frequently stakeholders are prioritised using a matrix approach. Such an approach will plot power in one axis and interest in another (either may be substituted with location or any other relevant factor for measuring likely involvement), thus using the matrix to determine the prime focus for the consultation.
The various methods of stakeholder mapping and research available have the potential to depict the community as an eco-system, assessing the potential power and influence of individuals on a matrix and their known reaction to certain issues. This enables the development team to assess a specific individual’s potential view (be it positive or negative) and asses the influence of that view within the consultation.
At the end of the research process, the team will have an excellent understanding of the community generally, the personalities and groups which shape it and the issues which motivate or antagonise it. It should become clear which sections of society are likely to respond to the planning application. Information relating to key stakeholders, their contact details and relevant influences and opinions can be collated either in the form of an Excel database or held on Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software. Stakeholder engagement software is often used for larger projects as it has similar functions to CRM systems but can be customised to a specific project. It enables individuals to be pin-pointed geographically and provides data distribution and analysis. The database should be continually developed, expanded and maintained throughout the consultation process.
Penny’s second book Promoting Property: insight, experience and best practice will be published in April 2020 and is available to reserve through Routledge and Amazon.