How to facilitate better practice online public consultations

If the COVID-19 pandemic has made anything clear, it’s the importance of online communication. It has become pivotal to public consultation, representing a trend that won’t disappear. As online public consultation increases in significance, we learn more about it. This is a guide to good practice regarding preparing for online consultation and informing and broadening participation.

How to prepare for gathering community insights

Online public consultation requires the same core ‘ingredients’ as engaging communities through face-to-face means. As Jonathan Bradley explains in his recent webinar:

‘Making consultation meaningful has always been about involving the right people, at the right time using the right methods, the right questions and providing the right feedback.

None of these factors are any less significant when generating online public consultation than they have been for offline, or traditional face-to-face engagement.

In fact, it is important to bear in mind the fact that consultation has not, and probably will not, moved entirely online. Rather, we see a trend toward a blended approach to engagement combining traditional and online methods. Online consultation requires investment into effective digital platforms that provide for public meetings and discussion planning to ensure that participants remain engaged. Furthermore, it is critical to record meetings and make them available later. This not only allows anyone who couldn’t make it to your online engagement activities to see what was said but also provides opportunities for people to continue the consultation conversation afterwards.

Finally, when preparing your online consultation, it’s important to realize that people won’t automatically appear. Creating an outstanding platform for public consultation with multiple channels of communication isn’t enough. You also need to let people know about it. It’s crucial to map your stakeholders (see next section), email the right people with the right information and strategically build awareness of your consultation through a range of social media channels.

How to meaningfully inform stakeholders

Stakeholder mapping is very important as it enables you to understand how best to meaningfully form them. Divide your stakeholders in terms of influence level and degree of interest. Once you have done that, look at those whom you have said have both high influence and high interest. These are the stakeholders who will require more intense dialogue and detailed information – which is difficult if not impossible to achieve with an online survey alone.

That doesn’t mean that other stakeholders should be ignored, but it is a method of being more time and energy-efficient. For any stakeholders and participants, it is critical to provide people with the right information to enable them to give your proposals intelligent consideration. This will allow you to ask the right questions and, more importantly, gain insights that are valid and useful to your consultation.

Rather than the 100-page consultation documents of the past, it is suggested to give snippets of useful, shareable information. Providing bite-sized chunks of more digestible content is much more appropriate now when people are accustomed to digitization and quick reads. Equally significant is giving information through a broad range of media, including videos, podcasts, infographics, and document summaries. Your information needs to be accessible; both in terms of it being easy to find, and it being easy to read or understand. This will allow better informed, therefore, more useful consultation.

Additionally, the traditional 12-week consultation window isn’t necessarily suitable for the online model. It is better for people to be able to dip in and out of consultation at times that suit them, in an asynchronous manner, with multiple touchpoints. Participants should also be able to contribute wherever they choose; “Netflix and contribute” — a phrase Bradley coined — refers to the idea that people can sit in their living room and add to your consultation conversation at their leisure.

How to encourage and broaden participation

97% of households in the UK are now online, which is the highest proportion ever. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone can access the internet in the same way. Affordability and quality of internet connection both mean that an online approach isn’t suitable for everyone, further emphasizing the importance of a blended approach to public consultation.

Nonetheless, with 75% of people afraid to speak out in public, using online tools is more inclusive than only providing face-to-face opportunities. That said, it can still be challenging to allow people to feel safe to share their opinions online, particularly over social media. This is why it’s important to offer a variety of ways for people to take part in order to encourage and broaden participation. Surveys are, of course, an excellent online tool, but alone they are insufficient. Online, one can also use webinars, discussion forums, ideas board, etc.; by having this range, as well as face-to-face participation, a consultation can be maximized.

There has, historically, been an argument in favor of the anonymity of participants in public consultation, due to a suggestion that this makes people feel more secure when giving their perspective. However, it is critical to know who is taking part, meaning that registration is important. This allows the consulters to quality control the responses that they receive, ensure that the views of different societal groups are represented in an equal manner, and manage the safety of the consultation and its participants. Thus, contrary to previous thinking, having participants register for public consultation actually makes the work safer and the conversations more reliable.

Online public consultation has grown substantially, particularly over the last eighteen months. The trend for the future is a blended approach, albeit with more focus on online tools than their offline counterparts. For successful, valid online public consultation, people need to be informed not only about the process but regarding the details as well. However, this should be in small chunks of easily digestible information, provided in a range of formats. Moreover, there needs to be a range of ways in which people can offer their opinions, instead of relying exclusively on a survey.

Want to learn more? Watch Jonathan Bradley give even more insight into how to build a better practice public consultation.

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