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“Freedom Day”: How might consultations be undertaken effectively now that restrictions have eased?

The easing of most legal restrictions on Monday 19th July amidst a pandemic poses fundamental challenges to public authorities in how they go about restoring face-face public consultations legally, safely and in line with best practice.

The Institute has received critical questions from members and clients around restoring in-person consultations.

What might be the risks of not consulting face to face?

To what extent should organisations follow a digital-first approach?

How best might a consultation be undertaken after 19th July?

We have considered some of the likely scenarios related to consultation and assessed some practical options available in a briefing note for consultors, which is now available for Institute members to read and download.

Some organisations have already been engaging offline within the last 6 months (particularly since March) where online hasn’t been generating adequate participation levels. They have been doing this in a manner that is socially distanced and with face masks worn, amongst other protective measures. It’s important to ensure risk assessments are completed for any public event you are seeking to undertake, including an additional risk assessment to identify those risks presented by the coronavirus so that any necessary control measures can be identified and implemented.

For consultors ready to hit the ground running with face-to-face consultations, here are 6 tips on how a consultation might be undertaken effectively now that restrictions have eased:

  1. Keep key stakeholders in mind – Members and clients should safely restore face-to-face activities with key stakeholders, especially those you have previously struggled to reach using alternative methodologies. The Institute urges public bodies to revisit their ‘stakeholder mapping’ to help identify whose voices need to be heard and design how to do it with precision using the most effective methods.
  2.  Take a digital-first approach – In the first instance, public bodies should make every consultation available for responses online and harness informal consultation and engagement methodologies (e.g. online drop-in events). How public bodies choose to consult must require a balanced online/offline approach based on the needs of the audience and partners/stakeholders and how they prefer to be consulted.
  3. Making public events visible – Important information relating to public consultations must reach a sufficiently wide audience. Make better use of publicity resources, such as the internet, social media, blogs and newspapers to raise awareness of the consultation.
  4. Ensure public events are accessible – Consultors must also ensure public events are accessible for anyone that would like to attend. This means stakeholders must be able to get to the consultation and engagement event reasonably easily, at an appropriate time.
  5. Be innovative to achieve better online engagement – There is an opportunity to reach out to a wider, new audience, including those that may not usually participate in engagement and consultation activities. In terms of the digital approach, social media has become an instrumental communication and engagement channel during the pandemic. Public bodies must build upon these strengths and continue to enter new spaces, such as gaming environments, to reach a new audience.
  6. Engage new people through offline engagement – In terms of offline methodologies, organisations now have the opportunity to engage with new people via roadshows, world cafes and pop-up events. The pandemic has restricted social activity for far too long. There is a strong level of excitement and momentum post-pandemic, and it is summer now- so, why not get experimental with seeing what you could do outdoors?

In conclusion, the question is not ‘if’ you should restore face-to-face consultations but ‘when’. There is a myriad of issues where consultees will wish to take advantage of the opportunity to express themselves in non-electronic ways i.e. local campaigns or protests. Therefore, we must be proactive in providing ample opportunities for consultees to share their views via offline channels. Taking on board the tips highlighted above will assist in planning your face to face consultations.

The latest Briefing Note on “What does “Freedom Day” mean for consultors seeking to resume face-to-face consultations?” is packed with additional tips and tricks and addresses some of the most challenging questions faced by consultors. If you are not a member of the Institute but would like to receive access to some of the content in the Briefing Note, please get in touch.

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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