The Principles of Best Practice in Online Consultation

My role in providing an online consultation tool and service isn’t simply to get a stamp of approval from the local community for my clients.  Of course I want to support my clients in gaining support for their proposals.  But my role is to run a good consultation, not simply to get good results.

ConsultOnline is built on the principles of best practice in communication.  In this blog post I consider what is ‘best practice’, and to what extent online consultation can accommodate these qualities.

My focus for this blog is development planning and the case study is Scotch Corner Designer Village, a ConsultOnline project which has recently been granted planning consent.  The principles are universal though, and are equally important in my work outside property.

Access and engagement

It is widely believed that increased accessibility enables greater engagement with the local community, yet 12% planning applications fail to gain planning consent because of issues related to consultation and community engagement.

Online communication is a medium in which many people choose to communicate and by targeting residents via their preferred means, the likelihood of support is increased.  Users can take part in an online consultation when and where they want – at home, on the move, while waiting for something / someone.  My research so far suggests that many chose to take part in consultations late at night.

Because of its increased accessibility, online consultation has the power to reach new audiences – particularly the young and the time-poor.  Local authorities welcome developers’ inclination to consult more widely; simultaneously this enables developers to unearth the support of the ‘silent majority’.

Engagement via mobile devices is increasingly popular:

How users found the website

Scotch Corner Designer Village website on an iPhone

Online consultation is particularly popular among younger age groups:

Ages of those taking part results from ConsultOnline projects to date

Much has been written on the importance of targeting ‘hard to reach groups’ and ‘consultation fatigue’ is another common barrier to involvement.

Some traditionally ‘hard-to-reach’ groups can gain access to a consultation best through a website.  In The Art of Consultation by Rhion Jones, Elizabeth Gammell, the authors argue:

Access to a personal computer has indeed revolutionised the opportunity to contribute to public debate for people how were previously struggling to be heard, and the ability of software to support innovative protocols never ceases to amaze.  Text-to speech enables blind people to use the internet and speech-to-text is similarly useful for deaf people.  Web designers are themselves urged to meet demanding new accessibility standards to ensure that disabled people can take advantage of these latest forms of communications.

ConsultOnline developed because it was felt that many people – particularly commuters, families with young children, the elderly and disabled – were not easily able to attend consultation events and provides an alternative accessible means of engagement.

A good consultation is accessible in every reasonable way possible.  In practical terms, provision should be made for the partially sighted and translations provided for communities with a high proportion of non-English speakers.  Consultation should also be intellectually accessible:  language should be clear, simple and jargon-free with any complex concepts explained.

ConsultOnline is accessible in both its language and in the varied ways in which information is presented.  ‘Translations’ of complex technical documents are available and the inclusion of email addresses and phone numbers enables users to obtain clarification should they require it.

Oak Grove Contact Page

Online consultation is also capable of removing hierarchies.  In a busy public meeting, for example, attendees may defer to a dominating character or group leader.  Ultimately those members are not adequately represented, despite their presence.  Online, and particularly behind the veil of a username, individuals are more likely to voice their opinions without fear of repercussions, while personal details remain confidential but are accessible to the local authority as a confidential appendix to the SCI.

An excellent consultation should always retain a focus on eliciting responses from key stakeholders:  it should not be assumed that simply because response levels are high, the community is adequately represented.

Above all, effective, wide-ranging and consistent promotion is key to making a consultation accessible: effective PR can make or break a consultation.  For this reason, communication via social media, blogs and the local media is a standard inclusion in any ConsultOnline campaign.

In the first section of this series of blogs, I explained that my role in providing an online consultation service is to run a good consultation, not simply to get good results.

This series of posts focusses on how the principles of best practice in communication can be applied to online consultation and uses Scotch Corner Designer Village as a case study.  If you haven’t already seen it, please have a look at Scotch Corner Designer Village.  Let me have any feedback – constructive criticism is very much appreciated!


Working with a community to develop a vision is the basis of consultation but the extent to which the community can determine that vision is debateable.  The Community Planning website warns against unrealistic visions:

Nothing much is likely to be achieved without raising expectations.  Yet dwelling entirely on the utopian can be frustrating.  Strike a balance between setting visionary utopian goals and being realistic about the practical options available.

Having run many consultations on behalf of property developers, I would suggest that entrusting the development of a vision to the local community is a step too far on the Ladder of Participation.  In development, vision is limited by both planning restrictions (such as density, height, massing and unit size) and economic viability.  Excellent consultation does not offer a community a blank canvas on which to create its vision but manages a constructive dialogue: communicating a clear statement of the purpose, clarification of the constraints, the statutory policy framework and the way in which the results will be used.

The importance of professionals, who possess an understanding of long term implications must be carefully balanced against ‘people’ power, according to Bristol City Council:

Councillors and officers will often have to make their own judgement about the weight to be given to one or other of the views expressed.  They may also have to consider carefully whether the aspirations and needs of future generations – who will perhaps be most affected by any change – might differ significantly from those of today’s population.

Websites are well placed to communicate a vision and to encourage others to share in it.  The Home page of a ConsultOnline website shows an inspiring image of the proposed development alongside text designed to engage:

SCDV Homepage


The vision is not solely that of the consultor’s, however:  the consultee is encouraged to post images and enter into a wide range of discussion forums:

RR Discussion page

OG Picture boards

Appropriate selection of tactics

The methods selected are vital to an inclusive and accessible consultation.  There is no single ‘right’ method and given the range of stakeholders in any one community, a variety is always necessary.

With the advent of online communication, the extensive toolbox of consultation techniques has expanded considerably.  Excellent consultation should focus on those techniques which elicit the most through responses and produces the most discernible results.

Choosing the most appropriate tactics is at the heart of excellent consultation.  It may be suggested that online consultation is a single tactic, but I would dispute this.  The ConsultOnline service enables users to receive information in the form of text, images, video and weblinks, and to interact though polls, forums, picture boards, posting questions, and commenting on blogs and videos.  Beyond the website, the service also enables communication via Facebook, Twitter and.  Above all, ConsultOnline aims to communicate with people in a way that is deliberately interactive, enjoyable and user-friendly.

In The Art of Consultation, Rhion Jones and Elizabeth Gammell support the view that online consultation can attract users’ attention because of its innovative nature:

Part of the problem is that so many of the traditional methods are regarded as passé.  They have been done to death and the novelty has worn off.  Questionnaires are a case in point.  Experienced consultors know that there is far more to consultation than surveys and recognise that quantitative data is frequently less useful than the qualitative variety.

I do not assume, however, that everyone prefers to communicate online, which is why ConsultOnline has operated alongside meetings with groups, newsletters and public exhibitions.  One day online consultation may replace traditional consultation entirely but we are only at the very beginning of that process.


A longer version of this article is available here:  New Approaches to Public Consultation