In the first of two blog posts, published on Monday, Ian Babelon, Applications Consultant at Idox, reflected on what he has learned about public engagement within planning and digital participation platforms over the course of his career and ten years of academic research on the topic. In this post, Ian reviews the remaining seven of the 12 principles for well-tempered, blended public consultations in planning.
“Consultations should … Be targeted”
Knowing who to engage, and how, requires an understanding of communities so one can learn to know them even better. The use of blended methods can help tailor public consultations to meet diverse needs along the lines of age, ethnicity, culture, gender, ability, all-rounded literacy, preference, learning capacity, and so on. This means being specific about younger and older people, native speakers and those for whom English is not their first language. These groups may all have different needs and capacity to engage. Engagement portals can enable high-quality, 24/7 engagement across a wide range of themes and projects, while scheduled design workshops may be best for exploring and evaluating different development options. Every design choice for public consultations matters because each will have its own implications. Improving digital skills is essential to foster participation in digital consultations, but so is addressing poverty and housing insecurity, which prevent people from engaging online effectively, and are more difficult to tackle than upskilling alone. For the record, Ofcom statistics indicate that 21% of internet users use smartphones only, and 6% of households have no access to internet whatsoever.
“Consultations should … Take account of the groups being consulted”
The capacity to target specific groups, as well as communities as a whole, should determine when, and how long, public consultations will last. This requires consideration of public holidays, work schedules, and so on, that will affect whether, and how, people can participate. It might also mean setting up pop-up exhibition stalls with connected tablets in locations such as shopping centres.
“Consultations should … Be agreed before publication”
The design of a public consultation must be robust and validated internally before going live. This includes a plan for evaluating it and providing continuous feedback to participants. In the case of non-statutory consultations, the requirement to engage residents more proactively may stem from keen councillors, or even the council’s leader. Well-coordinated public consultations can also involve local authority staff, engagement professionals, and academic researchers, as well as students at universities. Depending on who’s involved, agreement should be clear and engaging to ensure broad support and a collective sense of ownership.
“Consultations should … Facilitate scrutiny”
Responses to public consultations should be analysed in order to demonstrate how these have helped to shape decisions about a policy or proposal. Transparency and analysis facilitate each other. For example, the French planning consultancy Repérage Urbain routinely capture all in-person and digital input on their online map-based survey tool, which often remains permanently available to guarantee open scrutiny while sharing insights with communities globally.
“Consultations should … Be responded to in a timely fashion”
The UK Gov guidance specifies that formal responses to comments should be published within 12 weeks of the consultation. In the case of continuous engagement or longer-term non-statutory consultations, feedback could be provided in real-time, as appropriate. The timelier, the better. Engagement summaries produced at the end of specific consultation exercises help provide such timely feedback, as do final reports that explain how citizen and stakeholder input have shaped final decisions. Long reports can also be summarised in both text and visual media on the portals where the digital consultations took place, and shared with the public via email and social media.
“Consultations should … Not generally be launched during local or national election periods”
This is self-explanatory. The rationale is that citizen input in public consultations may become more emotional, or that people may be less available or interested to participate during election campaigns. Furthermore, strategic orientations could change that would invalidate resident input submitted just before an election.
Consultations should … Be well-tempered
This principle is an add-on that helps to integrate all the others. The “well-tempered” facet of public consultations is implicit in all engagement guidance. Like Bach’s clavier, it resonates clearly, proportionately and in a timely manner as the sum of all principles.
Well-tempered public consultations are really a collective, collaborative effort. We intuitively know and appreciate balance when we see it, in art as in evidence-based matters. Even as the trend is strongly toward digital transformation through “digital-first”, if not digital-only service design and delivery, one is also reminded of the timeless adage that “there is nothing new under the sun”.
Digital technologies certainly allow us to do more, and differently. But they are not the end-goal of public service innovation and transformation. Likewise, classical music will continue to thrive even as robots make instrumental music of the most engaging kind. This is also a call to temper creativity with data, and vice versa. Statistics is also an art, after all.
Much of the insight in this blog post is drawn from evidence-based research by the author over the last ten years, including a thesis about the objectives and influence of digital engagement in planning, supervised by Dr. James Charlton at Northumbria University.
Ian Babelon is an Applications Consultant within Idox.
Photo: Rebecca Jackson
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