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How effective might online consultation be amid the Coronavirus Pandemic?

The Institute is an advocate of online public engagement and consultation and has successfully helped many organisations implement effective online methods into their consultation process. However, the Institute has previously emphasised that online consultations prove to be most successful when used in conjunction with offline methods.

Nonetheless, the introduction of the social distancing policy hasn’t left consultors with much choice!

Some organisations have considered alternative ways to adapt their face-to-face consultation methods. For instance, Highways England was consulting on their proposal for the Lower Thames Crossing, but had to cancel the remainder of their face-to-face consultation events. Instead, they replaced this with a two-day telephone service and an online survey. These alternative dialogue methods enabled people who planned to attend the remaining events to speak to the project team about any changes and submit their views through the online survey.

For as long as there are no ‘contact’ events, consultors will be thinking about turning to online techniques. But, we understand that consultors often struggle to choose the right method for their consultation or engagement – one that is both cost-effective and ultimately attracts quality responses from key stakeholder groups as well as the wider public.

It’s relatively easy and cost-effective to translate paper-based surveys or questionnaires to online contexts. Quantitative online methods have many benefits. They have the potential to receive instant responses, accurate results and alter the sequencing and type of questions asked depending on the answers.

Some digital platforms will enable you to be more selective; for example, SmartSurvey provides the option to pre-screen participants and only allow specific profiles to complete the survey. Of course, this assumes that the target group will already know about your proposed change and willingly fill out the survey, rather than the consultor reaching out to that target group. There is no guarantee they will take part! In this case, before the consultation, effective engagement with these groups will be valuable.

But what about finding an online equivalent for public events?

Public events such as face-to-face drop-in events allow people to learn about proposed plans and allow consultors to sit down, listen and understand the views of the public, residents and key stakeholders. This two-way direct communication is crucial in creating meaningful dialogue and sends the powerful message that their opinions matter. There is also potential to successfully adapt public events to an online context. Video conferencing software, like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and WebEx, have the ability for an individual to speak to a consultor and allows the sharing of materials to deliberate over.

The other key point to consider is whether your online consultation is capable of attracting responses from a range of demographics, and most importantly from individuals and key groups that are likely to be affected by your proposal.

You might have to remove barriers that could prevent participation. For example, some individuals or groups feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts on their own platforms, rather than official channels designed explicitly for themed discussions. Modern online methods can provide a comfortable space for people to share their thoughts and ideas. Providing such a forum to hear from stakeholders and the public, is becoming a favoured method of consultation and engagement and best practice among leaders. It would be important to have these forums moderated to keep topics organised and keep participants safe from online harassment and abusive comments.

It’s essential to consider that some profiles of people, including those that might have specific disabilities, be vulnerable and/or be ‘seldom heard’ ’might have reduced or no access to the Internet or opt to minimise their online presence. Others may prefer traditional consultation mediums rather than online. It’s important to ensure parties cannot argue they have been excluded; this would create a possible legal risk. In such situations, you’ll have to make a conscious effort to include key stakeholder groups and people who are likely to be affected – so consider using traditional dialogue methods (such as telephone conferencing and hotlines).

Earlier this month, a member of the Scottish Parliament launched an online public consultation regarding safety improvements at a dangerous junction in Scotland. This consultation attracted more than 1000 responses within 24 hours. Although online public consultations can be useful to attract a large number of responses with different views and ideas, it’s essential to keep the objectives of the consultation in mind, ensure that you are hearing from the key stakeholders you have identified in your stakeholder mapping and gaining high-quality information. Quality is as important as quantity! The following exercise will help you with this:

Test 1: Are you hearing from people who are directly affected by this decision?

Test 2: Are you hearing from people who are indirectly affected?

Test 3:  Are you hearing from people who are potentially affected?

Test 4: Are you hearing from people whose help is needed to make the decision work?

Test 5: Are you hearing from those people who know about the subject?

Test 6: Are you hearing from those people that will have an interest in the subject?

Test 7: Have you ensured your approach affords them a deliberative opportunity?

If you have any questions about COVID-19 or its impact on your consultation and engagement, the Institute has a dedicated Covid-19 page including a wiki, where informative articles on this theme will help you learn more, and dialogue can take place. Precisely what we recommend for consultors.

If you’re interested in learning more about online consultation, the Institute offers training and advice and guidance as support.

About the Author

Sheena joined the Institute at the end of 2019 as our Public Policy and Research Officer. In her evolving research-based role, Sheena will be writing articles and commentaries for our newsletter and building case studies of past and future Institute projects highlighting different sectors, pitfalls and law.

Read more about Shaheena

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