Online Consultation – future or fad?

Are public meetings in draughty church halls a thing of the past?

The public consultation campaigns that I have run recently have undergone radical transformation.  Advances in internet communications and social media have created the means for consultation to evolve into something more responsive, more adaptable and more cost effective than unruly public meetings.

But will online consultation ever really replace the tried and tested means of consultation? Consider these (admittedly extreme) possibilities:

  • Community meetings (sometimes either badly attended or a riot) – replaced by tweet-ups and live discussions on Facebook
  • Exhibitions (the entire development team ticking their heals in a disused shop for four days) – replaced by interactive graphics, visuals and questionnaires all online, with an opportunity to contact members of the development team directly
  • Surveys by a polling company (expensive, and inconclusive until the results are formally produced) – replaced by a series of online surveys and polls which give the development team a view of the scheme’s reception on an ongoing basis
  • Site visits (does walking around a muddy building site in someone else’s boots really inspire the visitor?) – replaced by a short before / after film on YouTube, to be watched from the comfort of the viewer’s desk / sofa / train seat etc

Local people love our online consultations because they’re immediate, informative, responsive, open and engaging. Developers love them because they:

  • are cost and time efficient
  • enable the development team to react quickly and appropriately
  • are easy to evaluate
  • overcome many issues of accessibility
  • ultimately result in fewer issues being raised at the application stage which saves frustrating and expensive appeals.

I’m not advocating scrapping any human contact in public consultation – but there is definitely a case to be made for using the internet, and digital media generally, to a greater extent.