Asking the right questions

What are the ‘right’ questions to ask in a consultation on a development proposal? Unsurprisingly, there is no ‘right’ answer!  Consultation can range from an issues-based exercise which encourages a wide range of ideas from its audience, to a referendum which invites residents to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a single idea.  Ideally a consultation will include both open and closed questions.

Depending on the nature of the consultation, fully open questions such as ‘What do you think the development should comprise?’ can give rise to unrealistic answers or angry rants. It is often more helpful, both for the individual and the exercise, to provide guidance which focuses the mind and in doing so generates more meaningful responses.  Issues-based consultations sometimes use the ‘dilemma’ approach:  one that puts the consultee in the position of the consultor and in doing so helps them to make a more informed choice. For example, rather than asking the question ‘What do you want to see on this land?’ the dilemma approach would state, ‘We are required to provide between 800-1,000 homes and three commercial units on this site.  Where do you feel the commercial units could be situated?  What sized homes are most needed in the neighbourhood?  Do you agree that the 30% housing association homes should be distributed evenly throughout the development?’ the alternative approach – seeing the proposal from local residents’ point of view – can also help address underlying negativity.  For example, a telecoms company invariably faced with the comment, ‘I don’t want that mobile phone mast obscuring my view’, may ask questions relating to need at an early stage, starting with the question ‘Is your mobile phone coverage satisfactory?’

A decision must be taken as to whether to request demographic data. Most consultations will benefit from a detailed understanding of their respondents.  In a site-specific development it is extremely useful to understand where people live and take this into account in relation to their response.  Information relating to age, gender and employment status can also benefit analysis, but can be off putting.  Rarely is it worth asking for demographic information if it deters a significant number of potential respondents.  A tried and tested technique is to seek this information at the end of the process, rather than early on.  It is also advised to make the provision of personal information voluntary, while both explaining its benefits reassuring respondents that the information will remain confidential and not used for any other purpose.  The Information Commissioner’s Office provides useful information about handling personal data and anyone running a consultation should consider registering under the 1998 Data Protection Act.

While data which lacks user information lacks validity, an anonymous contribution is usually more valid than none. Online consultation demonstrates that anonymity can benefit a consultation in removing hierarchies.  In an online consultation conducted by ConsultOnline 54% of those taking part in the consultation chose a username which bore no resemblance to their actual name, yet names, addresses and postcodes were supplied for the registration process.  The lack of these comments would have been detrimental to the consultation, and while respondents were reassured that their personal details would not be made public, the development team had access to the demographic data necessary to create an excellent consultation report.

Ideally, a consultation should include a mixture of qualitative and quantitative tactics which, in turn, produce both qualitative and quantitative data. Questions should be closely aimed to the objectives of the consultation and most importantly, questions should only be asked if their responses can impact on the proposals.


Penny Norton

Penny’s book Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide is published by Routledge in June 2017.  Please email Penny to receive notification of its publication.