In the first of two blog posts, Ian Babelon, Applications Consultant at Idox, reflects 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.
Planning for, and with, people
Ever since the Skeffington Report and Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation in the late 1960s, it has become increasingly commonplace to give people the opportunity to influence the policy decisions that will directly affect them.
In town planning, community engagement takes place primarily through statutory consultations in policy-making and development management. Non-statutory consultations can also help fill the gaps in existing knowledge, for example in drafting new comprehensive plans or thematic policies such as active mobility or determining housing needs.
From the perspective of property developers, there is a strong financial incentive to guarantee the community will support their proposals, or at the very least not oppose them. Resistance from the local community can lead to undue delays, which makes engaging people at the earliest opportunity all the more important.
This article reviews the 11 Consultation Principles published by the UK Government in 2018 by discussing relevant good practice in “blended” engagement. Blended engagement has also been termed “phygital” engagement or public engagement 3.0. The approach is simple – at least in principle.
Blended engagement combines in-person / physical methods of engagement with digital ones to make sure everyone can participate in the way that suits them best. A robust design for a public consultation will ensure that the selected tools for conducting it will enable effective participation. Therefore, the design of the process precedes the choice of tools or technology. As a result, citizens are more likely to provide better-informed comments and suggestions that will add value to the overall engagement and planning process. In turn, citizen input will help shape better decisions.
Diversifying the methods of engagement broadens the range both of publics and types of input, from online surveys and idea submissions to community design workshops and pop-up exhibitions in public spaces. The key is to combine them in meaningful and appropriate ways that match the project or policy at hand.
Eleven principles, plus one
The twelfth principle, added by the author of this blog article, is the synergy between the other principles. It highlights their interdependence. It also proposes a delicate balance between innovation and continuity, and between speed of execution and time for meaningful analysis. It’s the key to a well-tempered public consultation.
“Consultation should … Be clear and concise”
Jargon is the death of communication in public consultations. The ability to express complex issues in simple terms is the key to effective consultations, as evidenced in the industry reports Engaging for the Future by Commonplace and the Future of Engagement by Grayling and RTPI. This also concerns the balance between meaningful information and information overload. Too much information kills engagement – especially for people without specialist understanding of the technicalities or legal frameworks underpinning the planning system. Software companies and professional facilitators can design engagement tools to provide a default of ‘just enough’ information to engage more meaningfully. This, in turn, can facilitate clear and concise citizen responses that address the purpose of the actual consultation (e.g. how to regenerate a neighbourhood), rather than more tangential or narrow issues (e.g. infrequent bin collections).
“Consultation should … Have a purpose”
Clarity of purpose includes determining whether consultation is statutory or not, and the appropriate blend of digital and in-person / physical tools that can best serve that purpose. It is bad practice to consult about aspects of proposals that are non-negotiable as these will create unrealistic expectations. Consultations should be to the point: broader for early, strategic planning, and focused to address specific projects or issues. That said, thematic surveys can also be grouped into one, to avoid fragmented data-collection efforts from council staff and “consultation fatigue” from residents, which would otherwise worsen staff overload and existing participation deficits and their respective impact on more collaborative forms of planning.
“Consultation should … Be informative”
Less is often more – but not always. The key is to present information compellingly, using an appropriate mix of text, videos, user stories, maps, digital and physical methods: public exhibition spaces can display 3D models; workshops and pop-up stalls can engage participants and passers-by with paper maps with pins and stickers; online engagement portals can host all manner of policy and proposal consultations backed by associated documents such as environmental impact assessments (EIAs), social value assessments, and site maps.
There are many virtual city environments, such as VU.CITY, MinStad in Gothenburg (Sweden), Virtual Newcastle & Gateshead (VNG) in the North East, the Glasgow Urban Model, and a wide variety of games for use in urban planning, such as Minecraft to engage children in a wide range of projects. These diverse technologies provide immersive environments to explore development scenarios, strategies, plans and proposals. Innovative engagement methods also help to capture insight and views from residents more creatively than public meetings, and therefore bring information to life in a totally different way.
“Consultation should … Be part of a process of engagement”
The engagement process can feature a blend of statutory and non-statutory consultation exercises, each with their respective methods and purpose. As Mike Saunders, CEO of Commonplace, writes: “the planning system should view engagement as a conversation, not a survey, a process not an event”. Depending on the nature of the project or policy, public consultations could facilitate non-statutory exercises such as crowdsourcing, problem exploration, deliberation and active dialogue between planners and stakeholders, on top of traditional consultative feedback. Furthermore, evidence-based research demonstrates that engagement could theoretically happen at every stage, including for continuous evaluation of planning outcomes. This requires capacity, continuity and willingness to engage in the long-term beyond single projects or consultations to create a culture of participation within organisations, and build greater trust with disengaged publics.
“Consultation should … Last for a proportionate amount of time”
One can’t consult forever, especially if a plan update needs to be submitted and examined for approval. Construction should go ahead once a planning application and design has been approved, and planning enforcement will make sure a design proposal sticks to what has been agreed as much as reasonably possible. Yet, there are also untapped opportunities for continuous engagement in a wide range of non-statutory exercises. This includes empowering community watchdogs that can help save remediation measures with a higher collective cost in the long-term. Indicators that focus on planning outcomes rather than outputs can also integrate, and foster, well-informed citizen input and views on a near-permanent basis. Overall, some room for creativity lies within the local authority’s capacity and imagination, as well as with the readiness to engage with different publics.
Public consultations are less a box-ticking exercise and more an opportunity to shape places sustainably for, and with, people. The national planning policy guidance across the UK recognises the need to engage the people who will be affected by decisions across a wide range of policies and projects. Organisations such as Ashden and UK100 have made it clear that community participation in planning will be essential to meet net zero targets and for climate transition to take off.
As every challenge is an untapped opportunity, it will take collective, collaborative effort and continuity to build capacity using a wide range of blended participation channels. In their review of all Statements of Community Involvement (SCIs) at local planning authorities in England, researchers Alexander Wilson and Mark Tewdwr-Jones show how digital transformation has been incremental over the last twenty years, but has picked up pace as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, public consultations should not be digital-only, and digital-first approaches will always be enriched by in-person and physical methods.
The next post will review the remaining 7 of the 12 principles for well-tempered, blended public consultations in planning.
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 courtesy of Scott Blake on Unsplash
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