The Principles of Best Practice in Online Consultation – Part 3

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Parts 1 & 2 of these blog posts addressed the principles of access and engagement, creating a strong vision and selecting appropriate tactics.  But there are many more key principles of good consultation…

Appropriate timing

As with any strategically planned communication, timing is crucial.  Consultation should be planned within timescales that allow for consultees to be informed and respond, and results collated, analysed and considered prior to a decision being made.  Consultors should avoid times when people are likely to be away such as during school and religious holidays.

This story from a local newspaper demonstrates that consultations can be deficient in both the time of day and the notice given:

OnTheWight has been informed that residents in Gunville are furious that a planning consultation meeting is planned to be held during the working day, when many residents are unable to attend.  Planning notices have been placed on lampposts in the Gunville area for a proposed development at the rear of Alvington Manor View and a meeting has been called for today, Monday 15th September, between 12-2pm (at Gunville Methodist Hall). 

The duration of a consultation will depend upon the nature and impact of the proposal, the diversity of interested parties, the complexity of the issue, and external events.  Four weeks is regarded as a minimum period for a comprehensive consultation.

Communication online has the advantage of being immediate:  information can be posted and responded to in minutes.  But consultation timelines should not be shortened as a result.  On the contrary, immediate communication can only take place if the audience has been targeted and is in receipt of the message.  Online communication can potentially spread quickly but only if the message is strong and compelling.  As has been discussed in previous blogs, ConsultOnline invests considerable amounts of time in targeting stakeholders, both initially and throughout the process.

Truthful and transparent

A commitment to honesty and openness is an undisputed and eternal quality of consultation and integral to this is the avoidance of ‘spin’.  The consultor should always ensure that the community is equipped with the material required to take an informed view and information should be managed to ensure that the consultee is not inundated.  For this reason, ConsultOnline presents information in a number of different ways and uses a variety of means by which to consult.

Confidentiality is an increasingly thorny issue in a world where public information is available at the touch of a button.  All parties must be aware of the need to satisfy a public interest test.  In the case of the development industry, this now takes the form of a Statement of Community Involvement (SCI).  Stating the need for transparency and the duty on local authorities to make documents publically available under the Freedom of Information Act is necessary.

ConsultOnline provides an honest and open service.  It does so through making the content of its website available to all, providing maximum information – whether as text, images, videos, technical documents, maps or links – and contact details.  Contributions to forums are not vetted prior to appearing online, but are automatically checked for inappropriate language and spam.  Residents are free to post questions on the Frequently Asked Questions pages and all questions (providing they are relevant) are responded to online.


The Perfume Factory - FAQs


With all ConsultOnline projects to date, specific polls and forums have been made available only to local residents.  The importance of registration is three-fold:

  • The proposed development will have a greater impact on those in a specific local area, and so it is important that local residents are given a priority in shaping the proposals.
  • The more detailed the information from the local community, the more value it has to the consultation process. If a developer understands not only what the community feels, but where certain views originate geographically, results are more valid.
  • The strenuous nature of SCIs requires that all responses can be identified by individual and location.


Oak Grove - registration


Developers’ opinions on the importance of user registration and identification vary and so a selection of options is available:

  • Users must register to take part in some but not all forums and polls; registration is open to anyone
  • Users must register to take part in all forums and polls; registration is open to anyone
  • Users must register to take part in some forums and polls; only those in a specific postcode area are eligible to register
  • Users must register to take part in all forums and polls; only those in a specific postcode area are eligible to register


SCDV - registration page


The day of informing the public on a development proposal and collecting in results at the end of the process is over.  Today’s consultations are all about ongoing engagement.  Online communication is fast and responsive, enabling the consultor to become aware of, to understand, and to correct any misconceptions immediately.

A ConsultOnline website can be in place within just five working days and changes to the website text can be made immediately.  All posts are immediately received by ConsultOnline in an email, enabling a rapid response.  In addition to a programme of posts being agreed with the developer in advance, forums are frequently posted at the request of members of the community.

In my next blog I will address the important principles of responsiveness and reporting / evaluation and communicating feedback.  For regular updates on new blogs, please follow @penny_norton on Twitter.