Getting public consultations right

A public consultation is a process used to gain input from the public about issues that may affect them. If well executed, public consultations can be a useful tool in gauging opinions, while notifying people about planning applications, developments and changes to policies. It’s important to show that public interest is at the core of a proposal, especially if it is of a controversial nature, or relates to a recurring issue.

 

Communicate

The exact purpose of the consultation must be outlined from the start. Transparency in community engagement is key, so the public aren’t made to feel misinformed or misled.

 

It’s the duty of the person facilitating the consultation to make the public aware of what’s happening and when, so plenty of notice must be given regarding important dates and events, like open houses, presentations or meetings. Regular updates should be provided, making sure everyone is well informed, which helps to build trust and enhance reputation.

 

Methods

It’s vital to make use of a variety of consultation methods to make information accessible and readily available. Online content like websites are popular due to the capacity for instant updates, but not everybody uses the internet, and some may prefer traditional methods, such as posters on notice boards at community centres, leaflet drops or adverts in local newspapers. Covering all bases reflects a knowledge of the audience, with appropriate materials in place to ensure inclusion. Readily available information ticks boxes of best practice: transparency and accountability.

 

Keep it simple

The nature of public consultations means that a diverse range of people may make up the audience. This requires the language used to be simple and clear so that everyone is able to understand, while also being informative and engaging. It’s all about the presentation of relevant information, so it should be kept brief and concise.

 

Time is of the essence

Keep good time, as it is an aspect that can be pivotal in determining success. Dependant on the size of the proposal, there may be deadlines to meet, and there should be adequate time between milestones, such as initial announcements and final decisions, so that concerns can be addressed thoroughly. This allows a better chance of success, with more scope for the community to be able to shape the outcome of proposals and plans.

 

Listen

A two way information stream is key, with feedback an integral part of consultations. There should be multiple opportunities for this, including a telephone number, surveys and questionnaires (online and in print) and drop-in centres, where people can voice thoughts face-to-face. Differences of opinion will naturally occur, so queries or issues ought to be dealt with as soon as possible. A quick response is indicative of a value of public concerns, as well as helping to reduce risk of negativity.

 

For further information on the subject, please contact Jennifer Peacock at Freshfield.