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In a world where social distancing is an immediate priority, we need to look at different ways of creating meaningful conversations

Posted on Wed 13th May, 2020 in: Property And Regeneration by Katie Wadsworth

Public consultations play an important role in shaping our lives and experiences. Whether it’s the location and make up of our homes; how we move about; or the quality and accessing of services we experience in our daily lives.

There are lots of different tactics for engaging the public in a consultation, with face-to-face events a popular way of generating engagement. Local pop-up events, drop-in sessions with planners or even large-scale events such as exhibitions are all common tactics, as they give everybody the opportunity to reviews proposals and ask questions.

Giving people a ‘space’ where they can ask questions and engage with plans is particularly important as people are naturally invested in where they live. Face-to-face engagement is also valuable for project teams as it allows them to understand specific concerns, correct any inaccuracies and collaborate with the local community.

While these tactics are no-doubt effective, in a world where social distancing is an immediate priority, they’re no longer viable options. But that doesn’t mean that consultations should be put on hold.

Now more than ever it’s important for development projects to go-ahead, stimulating the local economy and providing opportunities for communities to rebuild and transform their lives and spaces.

Plans for upgrading infrastructure and developing towns and cities are still in the pipeline, but as public consultation is an essential part of generating change and a requirement of the planning process, how will we engage when social distancing measures still prevail?

For us, the answer lies in embracing online tools and seeing that they now offer a lot more than just a website and a questionnaire. Online consultations aren’t a new concept, platforms like Commonplace, Citizen Space, CitizenLab and many more have been helping forward-thinking local communities, councils, healthcare services and developers alike to improve project delivery for nearly a decade now. But we believe there is a bigger role for them to play in a post-Covid world.

We’ve seen first-hand the valuable role digital consultation tools have to play in public consultations. For both the York Central development and the Connecting Leeds transport project we used them as part of an integrated approach, with online and face-to-face engagements working hand-in-hand to create genuine engagement across all stakeholders.

Using our own insights and experience, we’ve looked at the top five benefits of embracing online consultations and the tools which make it possible.


1. Instant feedback and responsiveness

A common challenge with the consultation process is the slow pace of gathering and reporting feedback. Consultations can often become formulaic as they work through a rigid set of stages which leads to stakeholders becoming disengaged or frustrated by the lack of new information.

By utilising online tools you have access to quicker and more in-depth analysis. From the number of responses and sentiment analysis, to the location of respondents, this data is being collated in real-time, allowing project leads to identify any age demographics, locations or stakeholder groups who may need more engagement. It also gives you the flexibility to respond quickly to any issues or misinformation which may arise as you don’t need to wait for forms to be inputted and analysed manually.

This increased level of responsiveness is well received by stakeholders as it shows that you’re listening to feedback and actively engaging with it. For York Central we were able to analyse the responses which showed that in terms of sentiment, 56% of all comments made via Commonplace in response to key areas of the plans were positive, with only 9% of people leaving negative feedback or disagreeing with the direction of the scheme. This insight and the feedback left could then be used in the next stage of the consultation, highlighting any areas where more work needed to be done.


2. Engaging a broader audience

Another frequent challenge with consultations is ensuring that you’re able to reach and engage with all stakeholders, from local leaders and community groups, to the seldom heard.

Where physical events rely on people being able to attend on a specific time and date, online consultations allow you to be more flexible. It doesn’t exclude those with jobs, family commitments or transport restrictions as they can access and digest information in their own time. They can even do additional research and feedback at a time which suits them.

Most platforms are compatible with online translation services, breaking down language barriers, and they also offer a range of inclusivity tools such as text size and colour contrast, to ensure that everyone in a community is able to share their opinion.

For York Central we employed a mix of tactics, using drop-in family events, workshops in local schools, walking and cycling tours, Pechakucha conversation evenings and film screenings. We also held a fixed six-week exhibition on the emerging masterplan at the National Railway Museum. Alongside this, we created a Commonplace platform for the project where people could digitally access the information provided on the consultation boards and answer a series of questions around the material, allowing us to collect views across a series of related issues. This meant those who wanted to talk to the team could come along to the physical event or they could review and digest the information from the comfort of their own home.

During the exhibition period, more than 5,900 contributions were made via Commonplace or on post-it-notes logged at the exhibition.

While getting out and engaging with stakeholders in their own spaces will remain important, with 99% of adults in the UK regularly using the internet and 85% of 65 to 74 year olds heading online, digital consultation platforms can still allow you to create meaningful engagements with a broad audience.  

3. Driving engagement and creating an engaged audience

Consultations often involve a number of stages. This means there is a drip feeding of information to the public which can sometimes prove to be a challenge for communications and lead to consultation fatigue among audiences. Planners and authorities want to ensure that people are kept up-to-date with developments, but relying solely on community organisations, local figures or the media means that some people will inevitably miss out.

Using online platforms for feedback means people can opt-in to receiving updates. Many platforms allow you to publish newsletters to those who want to stay informed, meaning you can build up an engaged audience and keep them updated along the way. Using newsletters to signpost to plans, drawings, websites or even social media channels where additional information can be accessed is also beneficial. They’re even a good way of letting people know about engagement activities you’ve got planned, from physical events to Q&A sessions.

Once you’ve developed this engaged audience, it’s important to prevent drop-off. Interactive feedback mechanisms such as webinars are a good way to do this as you can hold talks on broader subjects around the consultation and create a dialogue between the public and guest experts.

After seeing a rise in demand for ways to connect online, Commonplace recently launched a public consultation webinar function, designed to bring all parties closer together.

Using the webinar platform, its partners can send out a “call to action” button which allows attendees to link through to the Commonplace for their consultation and provide live feedback. This means you could have different experts running webinars on a variety of topics from transport links, to housing provision or community spaces and encourage attendees to leave their feedback there and then while it’s still fresh in their minds.

You’re not then relying on people to log on to the website at a later date because inevitably you’ll get drop off from those who will get distracted or forget to do it later. This is another valuable tool to get people talking in a safe, socially distanced way, and generate valuable community feedback all in one go.


4. Helping to tackle specific and problematic issues

Often in consultations, especially around planning and transport, there can be specific aspects which can become sticking points. Whether it’s the route of a footpath or layout of a road junction, it can be these issues which consume conversations.

In these instances, walking tours, group cycle rides or detailed meetings can be effective ways of moving the conversation on. But if that’s not possible, tools like interactive heat maps or slider illustrations can help people pin point these issues and visualise what new layouts might look like.

The heat maps were a really effective tool for the Connecting Leeds consultation where the Leeds City Council was looking to communicate plans to upgrade key bus corridors across the city. People were able to access specific maps for their area and leave detailed comments around the local challenges they faced. These comments were anonymous, but open to the public, so other users could interact with the posts and share their own views.

Heat maps also help identify previously unknown issues by the concentration of comments and can be applied outside transport, for example, identifying problematic areas or underutilised spaces as part of a town development framework.


5. Evidencing engagement with stakeholders

Once you’ve generated engagement and feedback from the public, one of the biggest challenges is evidencing the breadth and quality of these conversations. Often evidence of community involvement is reduced down to top-line reports on the number of people engaged and while this is important, it doesn’t always reflect the scale and quality of engagement.

A criticism often levelled by unhappy members of the public is that they didn’t know about the consultation or that community feedback wasn’t taken into account. Having an accessible log of the work done throughout the whole consultation then becomes important as it shows what information was provided, how it was shared, as well as the level of feedback and comments from the public and the number of people engaged.

It also helps to improve transparency between project teams and the public as all of the documents remain available, even after the consultation has closed. Unlike websites or microsites which can be more expensive and difficult to keep up-to-date, documents don’t need to be replaced to create space so they become a living record of engagement.

The online platforms also provide an important bank of information for planning teams to dip into and easily access documents from different stages of the consultation, allowing them to accurately evidence the evolution of the project.

We all agree that face-to-face communication is an important part of the consultation process, but project teams and planning departments are going to need to find workable solutions that allow progress to be made while this might not be possible. As it seems that social distancing will remain part of our everyday lives for some time, we need to embrace the full range of online tools and digital mechanisms available which still enable us to create meaningful and valuable engagements and allow projects to move forward.

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