Consultation gone wrong: the do’s and don’t’s of conducting a successful public consultation
Cotswold District Council recently provided an excellent example of when a public consultation fails to achieve its purpose. The Council set up a consultation to ask the opinion of the Cirencester local community on three proposed designs for a new car park. The three architects’ designs were titled ‘Wooden Weave’, ‘Aluminium and Stone’ and ‘Hare and Mosaic’. The consultation asked local residents to rank the three designs by preference on a points-based system. Three points were awarded for the first choice, two for second and one for third.
More than 1,200 people participated in the consultation. ‘Wooden Weave’ came out on top with 2,297 points, ‘Aluminium and Stone’ came second with 1,852 points and ‘Hare and Mosaic’ came third with 1,794 points.
However, surprisingly, the Council decided there was no clear winner or loser and there was ‘no clear steer on which architect should leave the competition’. The Council went on to say that its aim in seeking public opinion was to help them ‘eliminate one of the designs to bring the shortlist down to two. However, as there was considerable support for each one, [their] project team will continue to work closely with [their] specialist consultants and get more technical details from the architects‘. Essentially, the complex points-based system that the Council had set up had failed to provide it with the information it required.
This ineffective consultation is a timely reminder of the key do’s and don’t’s of conducting a successful consultation:
- Do ensure you have a clear purpose for the consultation – in deciding your purpose, you will need to consider what the key objectives of the consultation are, what information you are aiming to gather, what type of result will need to be produced from the information obtained (eg a report) and how this information will be used.
- Do consider fully which consultation method best suits your purpose – once you have a clear purpose, consider different methods of consultation such as public meetings, online / telephone surveys, roadshows and focus groups. Decide which method (or methods) is going to be the most suitable approach to achieve the outcome needed.
- Do ensure your consultation questions are clear and concise – make sure that your questions are drafted in plain English and avoid unnecessary jargon or ambiguity. Ensure that the questions or voting system will provide you with a clear result and will assist in achieving your purpose. Limit the number and length of questions and make them easy for everyone to understand.
- Don’t consult for the sake of it – there may be a legal duty for your organisation to consult, so it is wise to seek legal advice from specialist public lawyers to understand your obligations. Consultations should take place when the development of policies or plans are at their formative stage. Do not consult when plans or policies are at a final stage as this risks the appearance that the consultation process is redundant.
- Don’t ask complex questions or use complicated voting systems which will produce a confusing or inconclusive result – Cotswold District Council could have offered a much more straightforward system by simply asking residents which design they preferred, instead of implementing a points-based system which provided an inconclusive result for their purpose. Keep your questions and/or voting system simple and effective for your purpose. This particular consultation was specifically designed to be a public vote however in other cases it is sometimes preferable to make clear that the aim of the consultation exercise is to hear a wide range of views and take a decision based on the range of responses, rather than the consultation operating as a popularity contest for the options. Those consulting should consider carefully which route best suits the circumstances of the proposal in question.
- Don’t cut corners on the analysis of the data – once you have spent considerable time collecting your data, allow ample time and expertise to analyse the data in order to produce accurate and helpful results. For example, full analysis and consideration should be given to areas where views and opinions differ, user expectations and priorities, identifying trends and comparing results with similar consultations.
For more information on public consultation, click here.