There’s a lot to say about the way in which the internet is shaping public consultation. Having described the background to online consultation and the way in which I have successfully used social media in consultation in Part 1, this second part focuses on the culmination of my work to date: ConsultOnline.
It was following the success my social media consultations for Bayfordbury Estates, Essential Living and Next but mindful of the constraints of social media, that I set up ConsultOnline last year.
ConsultOnline is a comprehensive website and associated consultation service which runs for the duration of a public consultation. The website, which includes an innovative selection of tactics to inform and consult, has many features of social media but has many additional advantages.
For example, ConsultOnline informs using:
- News updates
- Exhibition boards
The various means deployed for consultation include:
- Picture boards
Every comment is responded to personally from an email addresses connected to the unique domain name. Usage can be controlled, if necessary, by limiting comments to those of a certain postcode area, limiting the number of posts per person, limiting the size of an online response, or providing specific forums with a ‘shelf life’.
The website is updated regularly throughout the consultation. It is supported and promoted through a social media campaign but aims to provide a platform for all online engagement on the planning application. As such, it is possible for all discussion to be very effectively monitored, feeding into a comprehensive Statement of Community Involvement (consultation report) and enabling very responsive communication with consultees.
Social media has been found to be an effective way to promote ConsultOnline websites. A Twitter profile is set up at the start of the consultation. Tweets are both posted in advance and sent out in conjunction with new posts on the website. New followers are welcomed with a personal message and tweets responded to. A ‘community page’ is set up on Facebook and the page advertised to those living in the vicinity of the development. In a recent project by ConsultOnline, Scotch Corner Designer Village, 47% of users found the website via social media.
But ConsultOnline has many advantages over social media:
- ConsultOnline does not require users to be registered with social media channels in order to take part
- It offer a wider selection of communications tactics
- Discussion pages are more easily visible, and therefore more accessible
- Quick links enable the user to navigate around the site with ease
- V cards enable users to download contact and event information directly to Outlook
- ConsultOnline can limit participation to specific postcode areas and other controls are available as required
- It enables users to hide behind an anonymous username if they wish – but ConsultOnline has a database of all users which can be supplied to the local authority as part of an SCI
- ConsultOnline websites have a unique, specific domain name (eg, www.scotchcornerdesignervillage.com or www.theperfumefactory.info) and a set of connected email addresses (eg, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org)
- A range of branding options are available as part of the ConsultOnline service
- Clients can request changes to the template according to their specific requirements
- The ConsultOnline template is constantly updated and improved upon
- Users may register for updates via email
- Reporting is significantly more comprehensive and accurate
Please have a look at the Scotch Corner Designer Village website and let me have any thoughts. The ConsultOnline template has been designed to accommodate change because I believe that every piece of work can be an improvement on the last.
With the exciting pace of change that we’re currently experiencing there are considerable opportunities for progress.
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.