The importance of research in consultation

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Ideally the early stage of strategy formation in a consultation programme should assess the context of the consultation as broadly as possible to ensure that all factors are taken into account. Useful methods for situational analysis are the PEST (political, economic, social, and technological) and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) methods.

Stakeholder analysis is central to any consultation and the spectrum of stakeholders for a single extractive project – let alone ongoing engagement with a wider community – is considerable. Stakeholders include not only those likely to be impacted by the proposed change, but those instrumental in communicating with the communities affected. Without understanding the quantity, diversity and informal spheres of power and influence that exist in the community, engagement runs the risk of failing to reach sections of the community and is thus asymmetrical. Stakeholder mapping enables the development team to understand a specific individuals’ likely views (be they positive or negative) and to assess the relative interest and potential impact of key individuals and groups. A thorough understanding of the community also informs later stages of strategy development, for example, ensuring that tactics are well suited to specific groups.

Having identified a broad range of factors impacting upon the consultation and those most affected, development teams should consider the specific issues likely to dominate the conversation. In communications theory, an issue is regarded as an unsettled subject ready for debate or discussion. Knowledge of issues enables the potential developer to better understand the broad context of local sentiment, in addition to existing and potential concerns. At the start of the engagement process, it benefits all parties for the developer to create a Frequently Asked Questions document which sets out each of the issues likely to arise alongside an agreed response. An embodiment of the transparency that any potential developer should aspire to, the document must above all be honest and open. It should also be flexible, as issues will change during the course of the project and themes will emerge or develop as new topics are introduced.

It goes without saying that electronic communication has enabled a more scientific approach to research. I recently set up an online consultation platform in which all data collected, from comments in meetings to online polls, was collated, enabling me to present the client with an up to date consultation report as often as required, at the touch of a button. It is hard to recall how twenty years previously the developer would have had little knowledge of resident sentiment until the end of the consultation: today, issues management is a key strategic element of any consultation and we have created the tools to easily identify emerging themes, possible misapprehensions and potential ‘ambassadors’.

With the transition to participatory planning, consultation data has moved from being predominately quantitative to predominately qualitative. Qualitative data – observations and comments, usually expressed in words rather than in numbers both provides a context for quantitative data, and enables the consulting body to get to the heart of an issue. And again, recent technological developments – specifically in coding and mention analysis – have brought about a more effective means of measurement.

Extract from Chapter 12 Achieving Excellence in Public Participation and Consultation by Penny Norton in Regulation of Extractive Industries: community engagement in the arctic, edited by Rachael Lorna Johnstone & Anne Merrild Hansen and to be published by Routledge in April 2020.

Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice will be published in early 2021.

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