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Lessons from covid and doing digital better at Waterfront’s Consultation and Stakeholder Engagement for Infrastructure Conference

Last Tuesday I had the distinct pleasure of chairing the (virtual) 2021 edition of the Waterfront Conference Company’s Consultation and Stakeholder Engagement for Infrastructure conference. This was my first time taking over from the usual host, our Founder Director, the redoubtable Rhion Jones. My first, but hopefully not my last. The conference was a fascinating mix of perspectives from across infrastructure- travel and transport, homes, energy and local authorities all showed their best and went through the key developments for the strange new world we now inhabit.

The message was clear- we must take and expand on the lessons of covid, and not allow inertia to set in and a return to the mistaken assumptions of the past. One of the key points of discussion, as you’d expect, was the impact of an increasing move towards more digital and connective consultation. Many of the speakers and panellists heralded the wonders of the new digital revolution, with several demonstrations of interesting new digital consultation and virtual room platforms. The digital, for both consultor and consultee, would seem to have proved a boon as people took up digital engagement with a vigour.

Amongst the enthusiasm however there were notes of appropriate caution. The watch-words must not be digital-only, but perhaps digital-first. Although an increasing majority of people have access to digital platforms, adoption is not universal, and care must be taken to secure participation from those that do not. Even within those who have access to online services, the skills gap can sometimes prove troublesome, and we heard many reflections that we should not assume that access means equal opportunity. There was a strong feeling from many participants that the onus for accessibility lay definitively with the consultor, whether this was simply by making platforms intuitive or by actively helping respondents or potential respondents to use systems.

The accessibility promoted by advancing digital technology was also highlighted as improving people’s relationship with consultation. By making simple, easy to use systems, potential respondents were more able and willing to fit in responding to consultations as part of their daily life. For the working person, an often-forgotten group that can have difficulties responding to consultations, the ability to simply open a web browser and respond in a straightforward fashion can be invaluable.

For those who are not so online, the pandemic has provided a reminder of the need to actively reach out and not wait for people to passively come to us. Find the places where your audience (informed by your stakeholder mapping) are, and go to them, taking the materials you need with you. Here we encounter one of the other major problems- assumptions. Don’t make them. You may think you know your consultees, and their needs- but don’t rely on this as an assumption. Needs can change, as can dynamics, and a continuous stakeholder mapping process can ensure you pick up on any alterations that might be needed.

Altogether the conference was an interesting and thought-provoking session with some fascinating debates and insights from all speakers and panellists. With things hopefully now heading back to normal, we very much hope to see everyone in person next year! Many thanks to Maxine Newton and her team at Waterfront for arranging the event, and thank you very much for inviting us to chair it.

About the Author

Stephen serves as the Institute’s Legal and Parliamentary Officer. Before joining the Institute Stephen studied Law at Bangor University and pursued a Masters’ degree in Aviation and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal. After this, he returned to London and was called to the bar in 2016 at the Honorable Society of Gray’s Inn, before deciding not to go into practice and move towards public policy work instead. Within the Institute, Stephen provides legal, political and policy analysis of UK and global current affairs of interest to consultors and consultees.

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