Public consultation: how long is too long?

At the end of October, a decision was made to press ahead with the building of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Yet despite this decision having been reached a decade after the idea was first mooted, with the first public consultation having taken place in 2007, we could still be another ten years away from breaking ground.

This clever graphic from Westbourne Communications shows how the legal process, including public consultation, a six-month public inquiry and a House of Commons debate, could take us up to the end of 2018 and potentially beyond. Operation of the new runway might not start until 2026.

Such a significant project that could potentially impact many peoples’ lives absolutely needs to follow due process and getting this right will of course take time. The views of people living where the runway is proposed or in the flight path need to be heard, as well as those of people who could benefit from the new jobs it could create. It’s an important consultation and we’re lucky to live in a democratic society that places emphasis on this.

However, this apparent lengthy and complex process raises two key questions – will it ever actually happen and will peoples’ views really make a difference? Won’t it just be decided, ultimately, by the Secretary of State? Participants frequently voice this type of doubt during consultations. There’s a cynicism about these sorts of things and I’m interested to know how we can avoid it.

Firstly I think it’s important to be up front about the process that’s ahead. What’s the timetable, and what stage are we at now? How does each stage feed into the next? What’s the worse and best case scenario in terms of timescales? That way, participants know what to expect – are they in this for the long haul, or will there be outcomes in the short term?

Secondly, it should be clear how and when feedback will be considered. Of course, it’s often tricky to show concrete evidence of this until the end of the process, but it’s key to building trust. If you say you’ll show how comments have been taken on board, do it, even if this means having to explain why certain feedback couldn’t be incorporated.

It also helps to spell out what participants can and can’t influence during a consultation by setting some clear parameters so that no-one ends up disappointed. I wrote more about this in an earlier article.

In designing a consultation, we can try and avoid the cynicism described above. We can try and make things clear, engaging, robust and relevant. The more difficult bit is getting the length of the process right. When it drags out for a long time, there can be concerns about whether earlier feedback will have been forgotten by the time a decision is reached; let alone whether a decision will actually materialise.

I don’t doubt that time should be taken to make sure a consultation is done well, is inclusive, and doesn’t rush people. But things can crop up unexpectedly and create delays or throw a meticulously timed programme off. I would suggest that the key here is to keep participants aware and engaged so they know what’s going on and what’s coming next (and are informed of any delays). By keeping the momentum of the process going with on-going dialogue, no matter how short or informal (things like website updates, tweets, letters or posters), it might not feel like it’s as drawn out as it might be in reality. As we’ve experienced so far with Heathrow, a consultation peppered with stops and starts and long periods of silence can cause eyes to roll!

Photo: Paul Green/unsplash/cc

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