Public Consultation Methodology

Knowing how to choose public consultation methods is a huge step towards finding success with your proposal.

Anybody who has attempted to gain approval for a proposal from the wider public knows just how important it is to put the right strategy in place to plan and deliver a public consultation. Public consultations offer you the chance to provide all the necessary information surrounding your planned works and receive detailed feedback on how they are received and perceived.

Understanding how best to undergo a public consultation can be a complex task. There are so many options available that finding the perfect fit for your proposal feels near impossible. However, getting to grips with the various options for public consultation methodology can help makes things easier.

Let’s look more closely at the options available to you.

The difference between qualitative and quantitative public consultation methodology

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of public consultation method: Quantitative and qualitative. Although, different, these two methods are also complementary, and often the most useful consultation involves a combination of the two.

Quantitative Methods involve things like surveys which provide statistical information from large samples of people. This can be used to answer many of the more basic questions surrounding your proposal, such as ‘what if’ and ‘how many’

Qualitative Methods involve more in-depth methods like interviews and focus groups. These allow you to gain a deeper insight from your respondents, answering the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Generally, this involves a smaller sample size.

Qualitative public consultation methodology

Focus groups

Strengths: Specific interest groups can be targeted and people often feel more confident in a group. It also encourages debate and discussion.

Weaknesses: You may need an experienced moderator to keep things on track. Answers can be time consuming and dominant speakers may stop others from contributing.

When to use it: When you need to understand the reasons behind attitudes and behaviours, or to gain greater insight on survey answers.

Individual interviews

Strengths: This is a good way to gain detailed, personal and in-depth information, identify new issues and speak directly to excluded groups.

Weaknesses: Interviews are often expensive and time consuming.

When to use it: To get expert views or a feel for important issues.

Paired interviews

Strengths: Like individual interviews, paired interviews are good for less confident contributors, often younger people, and gives people the chance to express their opinions privately.

Weaknesses: Again, these can be expensive and time consuming, especially the data analysis.

When to use it: Paired interviews are useful for investigating results in greater depth, or to get a feel for the key issues.

Service user groups

Strengths: This is a useful tactic for building positive relationships with users, especially when using regular dialogue.

Weaknesses: They can quickly become dominated by particular groups and issues.

When to use it: They are useful for engaging users in service development, and for getting regular feedback.

Citizens’ workshop

Strengths: This is a more fruitful way of getting feedback than through public meetings or written comments. They can also be sued to identify issues which you may not previously have considered.

Weaknesses: Success depends largely on whether the groups can be considered representative. It also depends on the abilities of a moderator to control the session, otherwise it can time consuming.

When to use it: This is usually used to explore issues on a one-off basis.

Citizens’ jury

Strengths: This is used to explore very complex issues, allowing participants to become very aware of the topics being discussed. It also provides an opportunity to gain a high level of feedback.

Weaknesses: This is one of the most time consuming and expensive methods of gaining information, and can result in limited numbers being directly involved.

When to use it: The jury is useful when informed public opinion is needed and when there is a specific question which needs answering.

Mystery shopper

Strengths: Mystery shoppers are easy to implement, flexible and immediate. They also provide detailed and precise feedback.

Weaknesses: They only give you information regarding isolated incidents, and staff can become suspicious over time.

When to use it: Mystery shoppers are well-suited when investigating front-line, person-to-person services when you want to know how customers are being treated.

Public meeting

Strengths: A public meeting gives people the chance to comment on issues which either directly or indirectly affect them. It can also help to build good relationships and demonstrate public interest.

Weaknesses: People may be too intimidated to contribute, and they can be both complex and unpredictable.

When to use it: A public meeting can be used to get an overview of public perception and a wide variety of information. It acts as a bridge between qualitative and quantitative methods.

Quantitative public consultation methodology

Postal surveys

Strengths: Postal surveys are easy to administer and analyse, and can help you contact a large number of people in a short amount of time, making them a necessary starting point for most consultations.

Weaknesses: You can only get a limited amount of information from a postal survey, but it usually enough to give you a basis before moving on to more qualitative methods.

When to use it: At the start of a consultation when you want a broad idea of where things stand.

Electronic surveys

Strengths: Again, large numbers of people can be contacted at a relatively low cost.

Weaknesses: Now everyone has access to the internet and some people find online surveys daunting. You also have little control over who fills it in.

When to use it: Again, near the start of your consultation to gain a wide breadth of knowledge.

Telephone surveys

Strengths: Telephone surveys are quick and cheap to conduct in-house, and you can tackle slightly more complex issues.

Weaknesses: It is practically inevitable that you will annoy people by using this method, as ‘cold calling’ has a huge stigma as a societal nuisance. The cost of staff hours can also make it expensive.

When to use it: If you need to do a survey but require slightly more detailed responses than you would get via postal surveys.

Face-to-face surveys

Strengths: Talking face-to-face with respondents allows for longer and more flexible questionnaires, as well as more complex questions. You can also tackle more sensitive subjects and form relationships.

Weaknesses: This is a much more expensive way of gathering information compared to other quantitative methods. It is also time consuming and labour intensive.

When to use it: Like public meetings, face-to-face surveys bridge the gap between quantitative and qualitative public consultation methodology, and can be used to gain slightly more detailed information.