The Principles of Best Practice in Online Consultation – Part 1

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My role in providing an online consultation tool and service isn’t simply to get a stamp of approval from the local community for my clients.  Of course I want to support my clients in gaining support for their proposals.  But my role is to run a good consultation, not simply to get good results.

ConsultOnline is built on the principles of best practice in communication.  In this blog post I consider what is ‘best practice’, and to what extent online consultation can accommodate these qualities.

My focus for this blog is development planning and the case study is Scotch Corner Designer Village, a ConsultOnline project which has recently been granted planning consent.  The principles are universal though, and are equally important in my work outside property.

Access and engagement

It is widely believed that increased accessibility enables greater engagement with the local community, yet 12% planning applications fail to gain planning consent because of issues related to consultation and community engagement.

Online communication is a medium in which many people choose to communicate and by targeting residents via their preferred means, the likelihood of support is increased.  Users can take part in an online consultation when and where they want – at home, on the move, while waiting for something / someone.  My research so far suggests that many chose to take part in consultations late at night.

Because of its increased accessibility, online consultation has the power to reach new audiences – particularly the young and the time-poor.  Local authorities welcome developers’ inclination to consult more widely; simultaneously this enables developers to unearth the support of the ‘silent majority’.

Data taken from ConsultOnline projects to date shows that engagement via mobile devices is increasingly popular:

How users access consultation websites results from ConsultOnline projects to date

The Scotch Corner Designer Village website was very easily viewed on a smart phone:


Scotch Corner Designer Village website on an iPhone

Again, ConsultOnline data shows how popular online consultation is among younger age groups:

Ages of those taking part results from ConsultOnline projects to date

Much has been written on the importance of targeting ‘hard to reach groups’ and ‘consultation fatigue’ is another common barrier to involvement.

Some traditionally ‘hard-to-reach’ groups can gain access to a consultation best through a website.  In The Art of Consultation by Rhion Jones, Elizabeth Gammell, the authors argue:

Access to a personal computer has indeed revolutionised the opportunity to contribute to public debate for people how were previously struggling to be heard, and the ability of software to support innovative protocols never ceases to amaze.  Text-to speech enables blind people to use the internet and speech-to-text is similarly useful for deaf people.  Web designers are themselves urged to meet demanding new accessibility standards to ensure that disabled people can take advantage of these latest forms of communications.

ConsultOnline developed because it was felt that many people – particularly commuters, families with young children, the elderly and disabled – were not easily able to attend consultation events and provides an alternative accessible means of engagement.

A good consultation is accessible in every reasonable way possible.  In practical terms, provision should be made for the partially sighted and translations provided for communities with a high proportion of non-English speakers.  Consultation should also be intellectually accessible:  language should be clear, simple and jargon-free with any complex concepts explained.

ConsultOnline is accessible in both its language and in the varied ways in which information is presented.  ‘Translations’ of complex technical documents are available and the inclusion of email addresses and phone numbers enables users to obtain clarification should they require it.

Oak Grove Contact Page

Online consultation is also capable of removing hierarchies.  In a busy public meeting, for example, attendees may defer to a dominating character or group leader.  Ultimately those members are not adequately represented, despite their presence.  Online, and particularly behind the veil of a username, individuals are more likely to voice their opinions without fear of repercussions, while personal details remain confidential but are accessible to the local authority as a confidential appendix to the SCI.

An excellent consultation should always retain a focus on eliciting responses from key stakeholders:  it should not be assumed that simply because response levels are high, the community is adequately represented.

Above all, effective, wide-ranging and consistent promotion is key to making a consultation accessible: effective PR can make or break a consultation.  For this reason, communication via social media, blogs and the local media is a standard inclusion in any ConsultOnline campaign.

Part 2 of this series of blogs will focus on developing a vision and selecting appropriate tactics.  To keep up to date with all blog posts on this website please follow ConsultOnline on Twitter:  @Penny_Norton.


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