Public Consultation Guidelines

The first step to a great public consultation is to understand the process thoroughly

Communication is key to any business project or proposal. But nowhere is this more important than when liaising with a community through a public consultation. Early and effective communication is an essential part of getting the go ahead on a planning application yet it can also be one of the most delicate and sensitive factors when seeking consent for a new building or infrastructure project.

Public consultations are a great way of gaining an idea of how your proposal is viewed by the public and how you, as a company, are seen by the local community. This is especially important in today’s society, where social media makes it possible for views to be expressed openly in real-time. While we can all agree that there are many benefits to using technology to share information, it is also apparent that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can quickly become a hub for Chinese whispers, speculation and half-truths. The last thing you want is a storm of angry responses to your plans before you’ve even got them off the ground, and so taking ownership of correspondence and communication is more important now than it has perhaps ever been.

Taking communication into your own hands ensures that the broadcast surrounding your plans is fair and correct. When you fail to put effective communication in place, you run the risk of appearing as though you don’t care about public opinion or convenience. If people aren’t made aware of your plans in the early stages, they might feel like they have been overlooked and are being treated as an afterthought in order to tick a box. Alienating and angering the wider public leads to mistrust and doubt, which will inevitably increase the number of objections to your plans. This can lead to delays and wider problems for your scheme.

You need to keep in mind that emotions can run high among the public, especially if you’re dealing with a large-scale project that is going to affect the local area in the long term. People react strongly to sights like pylons and overhead lines cutting across country roads, even if your marketing informs them it’s for a greater good. This makes fierce opposition likely, which will only stand to delay your plans further.

Public consultations should be honest, clear and concise

When piecing together a public consultation, be sure to use plain English and avoid any acronyms which people may not understand. Be clear what questions you are putting forward and only put forward those questions which you think are necessary. Make your questions easy to understand and easy to answer, as this will ensure that nobody feels pushed out of the response group. Avoid overly-lengthy documents and consider merging documents which fall into related topics — people don’t want to spend too much time offering their thoughts.

Public consultations should have a set purpose

You shouldn’t organise a public consultation simply for the sake of having one. Consult lawyers to see whether there is any legal duty you need to consult, and take any responses you get into account when taking your policy forward to the next stage. When the plans or policies are in their formative stage, consult about development plans to give everyone a clear idea of what is to be expected. Also, don’t ask questions for the sake of it, especially ones on issues on which you already have a final view.

Public consultations should be informative

As well as gaining feedback on your proposal, the main objective of a public consultation is for you to provide information on your proposal to the wider public. Make sure you provide enough information so that those being consulted understand the issues and can give their informed views on them. Be honest about the potential costs of your proposal, as well as the expected benefits. People need to know how these changes are going to affect them personally, good or bad.

Public consultations should be recognised as only one part of the engagement process

Keep in mind that a public consultation is a largescale task which often consists of many different on-going factors. It is not just about handing out formal documents and collecting responses to them. There are a lot of other options you should consider when creating a diverse, widespread public consultation. These include informal iterative consultation using digital tools and collaborative approaches. This will help ensure as many people and demographics as possible can have their say.

Public consultations should last for an appropriate amount of time

Be sure to judge the length of your consultation on the necessary criteria, rather than just choosing a time at random. Take the impact and nature of your proposal into account, as well as the legal advice you’ve received. Consulting too quickly will not leave enough time for proper consideration from your audience, and this in turn will reduce the quality of the responses you receive. However, taking too long with a consultation will unnecessarily delay progress and can make your audience more impatient.

Public consultations should be targeted

Take the time to consider all the different people, business and organisations who are likely to affected by your proposed policy. Do representative groups for them exist? You should consider targeting specific groups in your consultation if you feel they may be particularly impacted by the changed. Tailor your consultation to specific groups if necessary, such as a younger or older audience.

Public consultations should take account of their audience

Your consultation probably isn’t going to be everyone’s main priority, especially if you’re trying to gain the views of another business. Consider whether they may be having a particularly busy period (such as a retail store at Christmas) and give them the necessary breathing room. Charitable organisations are likely to take even longer to respond to businesses, so take this into account when planning.

Public consultations should be agreed before publication

Before you publish a written consultation, be sure you have received collective agreement for the various people, businesses and organisations you have been contacting. This is particularly true if you are consulting on new policy proposals.

Public consultations should facilitate scrutiny

Your responses should be published alongside the proposal itself in order to ensure the entire situation surrounding the plan is clear for everyone involved. Explain how the responses you have received have informed your policy, and also how many responses you’ve received overall.

Responses to public consultations should be published efficiently and effectively

Aim to publish your responses within 12 weeks of the initial consultation, or provide a reason why this hasn’t been possible. If your policy relates to a statutory instrument, make sure you publish responses before or at the same time as the instrument is laid. Allow an appropriate amount of time to pass between closing a consultation and implementing policy or legislation.

By taking these public consultation guidelines into account, you can help ensure effective communication with the wider public. This will give your project the best chance of success, without having to deal with criticism and controversy which could see your plans delayed or even put on hold indefinitely.