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The Importance of Social Media in a Public Consultation

Last week Remarkable Engagement and tCI organised a Breakfast Briefing on Social Media and the Planning Consultation Process. Remarkable Engagement ran a survey and contacted 1,401 councillors across Great Britain and asked them, “to what extent is social media being accepted at the political end of the consultation?”. Here are some of their results:

  • 75% said social media is an important or very important engagement tool
  • 54% said social media carried ‘a great deal’, ‘quite a lot’ of weight in the consultation process currently
  • 60% believe developers should be engaging with local communities through social media
  • Over 1/3 believe public responses gathered via social media should be included as part of a Statement of Community Involvement
  • 60% believe social media will increase in importance as a public engagement tool

In this modern day digital age some of their conclusions are actually a bit surprising. 75% of elected members believe that social media is an important engagement tool. If you were to ask the same question to Council Officers, the number would undoubtedly be higher – and rightly so! Social media can be used to motivate and mobilise large numbers of consultees to try to influence decisions taken by consultors.

We can understand why there is still a reluctance to use social media though. People from all over the world can get involved in your housing development consultation or there is the looming danger of campaigning groups hijacking your consultation if they think it represents a larger national issue (think of fracking). By using Social Listening you can eliminate most of these fears by filtering out the ‘noise’ that most social media is riddled with. At last week’s Briefing Event, people repeatedly said that running an online consultation is time-consuming and unmanageable. In practice, however, organisations will find they are working within two distinct environments:

  1. Managed social media sites – established or administered by the consultor
  2. Monitored social media sites – run by third parties, but which you, as consultor, should follow

Whereas the former will actually reduce the burden of consultation – both for consultors by taking advantage of technology tools and channels, and for consultees to make their views known – the latter will be more of a challenge. Although it is inappropriate and unwise to use these networks to promote a particular point of view, it is acceptable for the consultor to correct misinformation or factual inaccuracies rather than to allow misleading posts to gain popularity.

It is important to realise that a scatter-gun approach might not be appropriate as it should be your goal to target your content to those people/organisations whose views you seek. Remember, you should focus on the quality of the debate, not on the number of likes, Retweets or reach you’re getting. Target those people that have the highest (potential) reach, influence and authority and it will benefit your consultation greatly.

If you are struggling to manage your social media channels, or you have no idea where to start, you need to make sure to get the following things right:

  • Target the right people (see the Six Tests of Stakeholder Identification)
  • Provide them with the right content
  • Use the right methods
  • Do it at the right time
  • Provide the decision-makers with the right feedback

Reaching out to those that potentially want to get involved in your consultation or engagement exercise is not easy. “If you build it they will come”, is no longer applicable. Consultors can no longer hide behind traditional forms of consultation (e.g. public meetings, surveys) as conversations are moving online at a very quick pace. Perhaps we should add a sixth ‘Right’, the right to professional training and I’m sure we can convince all of those surveyed Councillors of the benefits of social media.

About the Author

Remmert worked as the Institute’s Policy & Communications Manager and has a BA in Law and an MA in European Policy from the University of Amsterdam. He is well versed in open policy-making and distilling evidence based recommendations into policy actions. Remmert is an expert on the United Nation’s Aarhus Convention for which he has developed a unique risk-assessment tool and is currently involved in a European Union funded project to explore how e-participation can foster young people’s empowerment and active participation in democratic life.

Read more about Remmert

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