‎82% of councillors believe that planning consultations only capture the opinions of the ‘most vocal people’

So this is the “news” that many people who are into community engagement and consultation picked up on this week.   Surely there is no surprise here?  And unless developers and planners get better at their approach to consultation then the provisions in the Localism Bill will only make matters worse and we will continue to only hear the views of the most vocal (or even worse only the vocal minority) and planning decisions will be less not more efficient.

So here are a few tips on how planning consultations can avoid only capturing the views of the most vocal people:

  • Take time out to understand more about the community involved.  Break this down into discreet groups.  Not just by age and gender and other demographics.  But also by interest or stake or by influence.  Then decide which groups to contact and how they should be involved.  Don’t expect them to come to you.
  • Use different methods of engagement for each of these groups.  People are more likely to take part if you use methods that suit the way they communicate.  So, for example, don’t be surprised if younger people tend not to turn up to your public meeting.  Ask yourself if you would have gone to such a thing in your teens? 20s? 30s? 40s even?
  • Avoid using open dialogue methods like drop in events or public meetings and nothing else.  Yes they are often necessary but they are also the best way to capture the views of the people most affected or in some cases the vocal minority.  Those who don’t know it affects them stay well away from such things
  • Include proactive methods of engagement, like street engagement, or door knocking, or face-to-face surveys.  Go out to the people and make sure you speak to those who don’t think these issues affect them, when most of the time they do.  Do something interesting.  Give something away, like a coffee and a cake whilst having a discussion.
  • Don’t rely on leaflets.  Ask yourself this.  If you felt (possibly wrongly) that a proposed heat from waste plant had no impact on your life then would you go out of your way to complete a consultation leaflet?  Probably not.  But often  it does affect people even if they don’t know it.  But if you had strong opinions and objected then you would certainly fill it in, and get your friends and family to as well.  You would become one of the most vocal.  So leaflets, and the same goes for postal questionnaires, tend more towards capturing the views of the most vocal.  The “am i boverds” stay well away.
  • Use social media to reach out to new audiences.  To get your message across.  To challenge misconceptions and myths.  Be certain that the most vocal will have a Facebook page, they will be tweeting about how horrendous your scheme is.  Listen to what is being said on social media sites and engage. Opting out is not an option!
  • You may need to provide incentives for some people to take part.   For many developments it is important that we here the voice of citizens not just the most local people.  Or a representative sample of them in reality. Unfortunately many people will not take part unless they are paid.  So to get a representative sample together, not just the most vocal, to take part in a focus group or a deliberative workshop or something similar then you need to provide an incentive, and often this is cash.  Some people don’t like this, but its a practical reality. Ask any market research professional.
  • Make sure there is room for influence.  You need to make certain that it is clear how the consultation will be used to make changes to your plans, before they are submitted. And feedback.  People may not like your plans but things just get even worse if they think that your consultation is a sham too.  And remember to feedback.  Tell people what you did because of the consultation.  Otherwise they won’t want to take part, unless they are one of the most vocal.
So it is not the principle of  consultation  that is to blame for planning consultations “only hearing the views of the most vocal”.  It is how the consultation is designed and executed and the resources that go towards making it reach beyond the most vocal.
What do you think?
If you need help with your community engagement or consultation then go to http://www.participate.uk.com or DM us at @paticipateuk
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