Addressing common challenges in consultation

Opposing factors and risks are common to public participation: the very notion that developers bring change to established local communities; the wide-ranging views which exist within a community; the sentiment of those wary of engagement and exponents of it. Significant time and financial resources are expended with no guarantee that the investment will be realised, and the focus on inviting comment on a potentially contentious issue can appear counter-productive to its eventual delivery.

However, an understanding of the potential challenges from the outset (and using issues analysis to further enlighten the process of understanding) can assist in mitigating risk.

In reality, potential problems fall into just a handful of categories, to which there are solutions. Two problems are common to the development team itself: resistance to public participation and a lack of dedicated resources. The first can be addressed by using workshops and training to gain buy-in from internal audiences, and the second by taking into account limitations at the outset, and planning accordingly. In the Arctic, travel poses particular challenges in terms of costs and staff time, and the use of technology is limited where a reliable internet connection is required.

Within the community, a common problem is a lack of understanding. This can be mitigated through provision of adequate information at the start of the process, in an appropriate voice and level of detail for the target audience; simplifying complex information and utilising professional communications skills as necessary. It goes without saying that those running a local consultation must be fluent in the native language. When inviting responses, it is beneficial to present information alongside questions to encourage understanding immediately prior to the questions being asked. Political interference is common whether in relation to national or local politics or in a powerful individual seeking influence others. Research and pre-consultation dialogue can develop an understanding of the community pressures and hierarchies and steps taken to mitigate undue influence. Initial research can be used to determine the most appropriate dialogue methods for each sub group. Lack of engagement is a common problem, especially when a community is suffering from ‘consultation fatigue’. To encourage engagement, a broad audience should be targeted, with the messages tailored to specific demographics and cultural sub-groups, particularly ‘hard to reach’ groups. New, creative and enticing methods can be used to increase engagement and time invested in both promoting the varied engagement tactics and the purpose (and potential impact) of public participation. Monitoring can be used to identify those successfully and as necessary, the strategy and tactics adapted to focus on the ‘missing’ demographic.

Developers are inevitably concerned when a consultation returns a negative set of results, though this generally inevitable given that a community faced with change is likely to respond only if it resists change – it is notoriously difficult to gain feedback from those who tacitly accept change.  This will be taken into account and balanced with other factors when a decision is taken. Research can be used to identify potential negativity and address issues at the first opportunity. Development teams should bear in mind that criticism is frequently constructive, and so negative responses should be interrogated to gain useful information and identify the true cause of concern.  Further dialogue and the use of facts can counter misinformation.  Negative responses which are a result of pressure groups or activists can be identified as such and, where appropriate, such feedback viewed as separate to the results of the target community. To counter the impact of such groups, it may be possible to use local ‘ambassadors’ to provide a bridge between the developer and the community. Developers are also advised to work closely with the media from the early stages of the project with the aim of securing balanced coverage.

It is immediately apparent when considering challenges to public participation a majority of all problems likely to arise are in the domain of the development team: issues relating to access, clarity, communication, creativity, failure to respond, inadequate promotion of information, resistance to engagement, a lack of resources and time are common issues with communications plans generally and can each be addressed prior to the consultation commencing.

Advice on how to address the external issues is provided in greater depth in my earlier book, Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide. In considering the challenges, it was immediately clear that most problems can be resolved by following the strategic process: situational and issues analysis and pre-consultation dialogue enables the development team to identify many of the potential problems that may occur, understand and manage expectations, and determine the most appropriate tactics to use; stakeholder analysis will identify the range of local audiences to be involved, from political and community leaders to those regarded as ‘hard to reach’, an develop and understanding of how best to involve them; the aims and objectives, as communicated through the consultation mandate, help address any criticisms of the consultation in terms of its breath, reach and use of the results; consistent messaging in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions document will ensure that the whole development team is able to address difficult questions, and agreement with the local authority over the strategic overview will provide the basis for a good relationship between the development team and local planning authority. Resource allocation will prevent issues such as capacity to respond, and monitoring will help identify and respond to any problems as they occur. Finally, monitoring, analysis and evaluation all play an important role in explaining the reasons for consultation results.

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.