New Approaches to Consultation

Online communication is transforming public consultation, presenting new opportunities to developers and making the process both more effective and more efficient.

Localism necessitates increased communication with local residents and clients are presented with a multitude of new means by which to consult.

Those developers who have been hibernating during the economic downturn are waking up to a new dawn. Advances in internet communications and the opportunity for online engagement have created the means for consultation to evolve into something more responsive, more adaptable and more cost effective. And it’s more fun too, with unruly public meetings in draughty church halls being replaced by engaging and constructive discussions online.

PNPR’s clients are now hosting Facebook campaigns which generate ‘fans’ in the thousands, artists impressions are brought to life, depictive videos with commentaries are posted on YouTube, questions are responded to within minutes and online polls are used to shape the future of a scheme. Local residents – or their virtual counterparts – have been able to step inside future developments on SecondLife; up-to-the-minute news bulletins (as well as a great deal more) are provided on Twitter, and focus groups have been replicated online through live forums and tweet-ups.

Other plans include inviting residents to upload videos and images of their suggestions (this works particularly well when consulting on play equipment or planting), collating video vox pops and creating an online montage of images supplied by local people. A simple programme can enable users to have fun planning a virtual scheme, while interactive mapping can be very effective in depicting how a proposal can change a specified area. And of course there are endless opportunities for clever stunts to engage, motivate and entertain.

Whether participating during snatched moments between meetings, on the train with a laptop or sitting at home with a glass of wine and an iPhone, the development team can engage both on a one-to-one and a one-to-many basis (and in relative comfort and convenience).

And canny developers are quickly realizing that the internet – in particular social media -enables them to overcome the traditional hurdles of consultation while bringing about substantial additional benefits.

Where traditional consultation methods can exclude ‘hard to reach’ groups, typically the young, the working population and those with disabilities, the internet can engage simply by its accessibility.

The working population at large was previously on the list of the inaccessible – not because of workers’ disinterest in local issues but because of their inability to get to a public meeting at a set time on a set date. But online engagement overcomes this problem by enabling commuters respond via a smart phone, iPad, computer or mobile phone – at any time and in any place.

The internet can be used and has been used by many objector campaigns. Half-truths and rumours can be posted on blogs and savvy objectors may create their own website. It is easy for people to be misinformed and for negative opinion to spread quickly. Creating their own online presence, developers can avoid this. Dedicated websites and social media campaigns which are set up for development proposals can present information reliably and provide a controlled forum for people to discuss proposals. Social media is engaging and informative, with an element of fun which can encourage the target audience to help in disseminating the message.

While we have found that all consultation tactics can be replicated online, we are not advocating that this should be the case: the digital divide exists in all communities. Where the project requires face-to-face meetings, the immediacy of a focus group or a presentation by developers, this is invariably the better option. Traditional media and targeted leafleting also play an important part.

Crucially though, the time taken to engage online is determined by the level of interest, not regardless of it. This puts an end to the waste so frequently experienced when a planning issue has little interest yet the development team are required to spend days kicking their heels at an empty exhibition simply to enable them to tick the required box.

There will be some developers who wonder how changes to consultation techniques fit into the Plan-Present-Defend template. The bad news for them is that this is a thing of the past: engagement is key at every stage of the consultation process. One only has to look at changes to newspaper and television to see how ‘reality’ and ‘citizen journalism’ dominate the media, while the culture of transparency leads to public involvement in decision at various levels. The risk of ignoring the internet is too big a risk to take.

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google and YouTube and other sites are now operating increasingly closely, enabling clients to get maximum benefit from their financial investment. At the same time, the

opportunities are broadening and enabling us to fine-tune the online opportunities to our clients’ requirements, creating the vest of both worlds, both online and offline.

Penny Norton is the director of PNPR Limited. Visit, email or phone 01480 471000 for more information. Follow @penny_norton on Twitter.