A strategic approach to consultation

In consulting on a specific proposal, the logical sequence of a strategy, however wide-ranging the involvement activities, establishes clear aims and objectives, enabling the development team to share values, expectations and understanding with local residents and organisations. A strategy is also the best means of identifying relevant issues, which provide context and insight as the programme progresses. The resulting communications programme is therefore a continuous cycle of research, engagement and evaluation, which can complement wider community development initiatives such as education, employment and healthcare.

A common mistake, often despite better intentions, is for a consultation strategy to become a retrospective document: the team launches into a series of tactics (perhaps based on past practice, experience or recommendation), results are collated, and then in a need to create a meaningful report, a ‘strategy’ is drafted to justify the approach. Worse still, and all too common, is to ‘predict and provide’, ‘plan, announce and defend’, or ‘plan, monitor, manage’. (These approaches are explained and critiqued elsewhere.) Each of these examples is a distinctly asymmetrical approach which makes scant use of local insight. Due to presumptions about a lack of a strategic approach companies should constantly aspire to disprove potential or actual allegations of ‘tokenism’, ‘box-ticking’ and ‘done deals’ through maintaining and communicating a highly transparent, symmetrical approach to consultation.

A strategic approach to consultation (detailed in the book and also in my earlier book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide) requires a symmetrical flow of information between a potential developer and the local community and must prioritise continual engagement, allowing development proposals to evolve in line with feedback, and for the process to adapt where necessary. The strategic framework is not a ‘to do’ list, but a cycle: situational analysis, issues analysis and stakeholder database benefit from ongoing development; regular monitoring influences the ongoing selection of dialogue methods, and regular evaluation reinvigorates the strategic direction.

Extract from Chapter 12 Achieving Excellence in Public Participation and Consultation by Penny Norton in Regulation of Extractive Industries: community engagement in the arctic, edited by Rachael Lorna Johnstone & Anne Merrild Hansen and to be published by Routledge in April 2020.

Penny Norton’s third book Communicating Construction: insight, experience and best practice will be published in early 2021.