The difficulties of involving ‘hard to reach’ groups is perhaps the most enduring issue in consultation. That said, the definition of those classified as hard to reach is changing.
Previously the elderly, disabled, black and minority ethnic (BME) and women were singled out as requiring additional outreach support. Today, older age groups and women may be among those most likely to respond to a consultation but issues still remain: whereas the 65-75 age groups is very likely to contribute to a consultation, the very elderly remain unrepresented; and whereas women are now much more likely to engage in consultations independently of their husbands than 50 years ago, parents of young children are considered hard to reach due to time pressures and the practical difficulties of attending evening events. Recent entrants to the list of hard to reach are those who work, particularly commuters.
And while accessibility for commuters has been very successfully addressed through online consultation, requiring people to use IT to respond to a consultation – perhaps to be more proactive in finding the information, to be expected to do so via online networks, to comprehend information on screen and type responses – has accessibility issues.
Local authorities consulting on strategic planning will have equalities agendas that they must comply with. Policies will recognise that different sections of the community, particularly minorities, have specific needs which should, as a democratic right, be recognised. Failure to take account of people’s differences could result (particularly in the case of public bodies) in claims of indirect discrimination.
For developers, particularly those in the private sector, there are considerable benefits in reaching out to specific groups. Discussions with the local authority at pre-consultation stages should include the ways in which the consultation may be made representative of the wider community.
It goes without saying that it requires a greater investment of time and other resources to work with those groups identified as hard to reach. Early dialogue should be used to gain a real understanding of a local community and ensure that issues can be identified prior to the consultation strategy being put in place .
It is important never to treat hard to reach groups as an undifferentiated mass: each of those groups identified above (and subsections within them) have very clear interests and needs. A consultation should have a clear understanding of those groups it needs to reach and invest time in understanding them. This might include knowing where specific groups congregate, their media consumption and which issues concern them. It is always very helpful to identify the leaders – both formal and informal – with a view to establishing initial contact through a representative. Local authorities are well placed to advise on specific groups, and in many cases can provide or make recommendations regarding translations, interpreters, and advise on physical accessibility. For long term consultations it is often prudent to employ or train a member of staff with responsibility for specific groups.
A consultor should consider whether processes are too restrictive. For example, some consultations will only accept responses made in writing or those made at a specific event. Again at the early stages, the various ways in which responses can be elicited should be considered – always ensuring consistency with the consultation’s objectives and the ability to analyse and evaluate responses, and to maintain consistency throughout the process. The consultation mandate should stipulate that the principles guiding the consultation will include those of openness and accessibility, and the consultation should reflect this commitment throughout.
The next blogs on the subject of hard to reach groups will address each of the specific groups in turn, providing some practical advice on the best way to reach them.
Penny’s book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is published by Routledge in August 2017. Please email Penny to receive notification of its publication.