The Importance of Being Consultative – Part 1

The following is part 1 of a paper on consultation – other parts will follow over the coming weeks. Your feedback would be welcome.

Consultation Practice

Community engagement processes that do not make a genuine attempt to consider the views of citizens / the community may be seen as tokenistic or even a form of manipulation that will lead to a greater degree of cynicism from the public.

Assuming open and transparent processes will automatically lead to an empowered citizenry /community is problematic, however, as it raises the question of where legitimacy should lie in a system of representative democracy. It also ignores the issue of who is likely to participate and how decision-making will be improved, given that providing opportunities for participation may simply increase the power of those who already have it. Nevertheless, we should be open about WHY we engage the public, and should not use consultation processes to simply justify a decision that has already been made.

A more sensible and pragmatic approach is to view public participation as an activity that should be shaped by the issue at hand (e.g. policy; process; service; programs; activities – current and proposed etc)

A Consultation Model

  • There are many consultation models available, however the model that I think has most relevance to libraries / Councils is the Spectrum Model [1]. Spectrum is a public/citizen consultation model, however, it could easily be used to inform internal e.g. staff consultations.

Spectrum Model

This model outlines the choices that decision making bodies have when engaging the community, depending on the degree to which citizens are expected to be actively involved in the decision making process.

The spectrum model cover the following public participation goals:


  • Provide the public balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions
  • What it delivers (promises to the public) – We will keep you informed.


  • To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives, and/or decisions (this would include their analysis/feedback on services, activities, programs etc)
  • What it delivers (promises to the public) – We will keep you informed; listen to and acknowledge concerns and aspirations; and provide feedback on how (your) public feedback influenced that decision


  • To work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.
  • What it delivers (promises to the public) – We will work with you to ensure that your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the alternatives developed and provide feedback on how (your) public feedback influenced the decision.


  • To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision, including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution.
  • What it delivers (promises to the public) – We will look to you for direct advice and innovation in formulating solutions and incorporate your advice and recommendations into the decision to the maximum extent possible.


  • To place the final decision-making in the hands of the public
  • What it delivers (promises to the public) – We will implement what you decide.

[1] Developed by the International Association of Public Affairs

The Importance of Being Consultative – Part 2

Why Consult?

There are many reasons to consult.

  • Consultation (if well designed) can:
    • Broaden your view
    • Test your views
    • Connect with your community
    • Involve your community
    • Legitimise planning outcomes
    • Lift your community profile (being seen)
    • Position your organisation as one that listens and acts
    • Lead to a better understanding of the goals, aspirations, issues, problems etc of your community – specifically particular target groups e.g. young adults; older people; genealogists; the culturally and linguistically diverse etc

Conducting a Consultation

What are the goals of the consultation and are they consistent?

Perhaps the most fundamental issue you’ll need to address when undertaking community consultation is whether consultation processes are created or their results used, to legitimise decisions that have already been made. While different staff within an organisation are likely to hold varied views about the rationale for consultation processes, people have been known to comment when interviewed that “9 times out of 10 the decision has already been made”. Consultation may, therefore, simply be used to learn about specific aspects of your ‘decision’, but its results will be unlikely to alter whether, for example, a project takes place; a service is launched etc. This is legitimate use of public consultation, as stakeholders can provide local knowledge and new perspective on your decision, idea or issue.

The key (as the Spectrum Model demonstrates) is to provide a clear and consistent message to the public about the role of the consultation process in making a decision. Developing a clear and consistent message requires you to know why consultation is required and how the information obtained will be used in any recommendations made for final decision.

Does it matter who participates?

A key question that is linked to the identification of the consultations goals is whether it matters who participates. For some issues you may feel that obtaining the opinion of any member of the public/community etc would assist in achieving your aims – on the basis that the ‘general public’ may have thought of issues, problems or solutions that had not been previously identified. Thus consultations may add value – given that a group of people may think of something a single individual (or staff member) may not have. Alternatively, if discussion takes place then consultation may multiply value. Enabling creative solutions to be found through discussion and reflection.[1]

Who should participate?

Assuming it’s important that particular individuals or groups (stakeholders) participate, you should then identify the desired target population, recognising that there can be multiple stakeholders, individuals or groups that may need to be consulted.

How should views be considered or evaluated?

Another question that arises for consideration when designing your consultation processes is how the input of various groups or individuals should be assessed. It is clear that the analysis of survey results for example may treat all responses in the same manner. But this raises the issue of whether for instance; the opinion of a local resident should be given the same weight as a non-resident or special interest group – particularly if results are going to be quantified when ‘public opinion’ is being sought. There are alternatives when analysing results – one option is to separate the views of individuals from those affiliated to a certain group or interest. Alternatively, some consultation practices create a working group of the various stakeholders or interest groups, and use their input to shape a subsequent consultation process in which individual citizens are the sole target group. This can help to engage stakeholders and build commitment to the process, while ensuring stakeholder views have been taken into account before the community etc have an opportunity to provide their input. [2]

What is known about the target/stakeholder group to assist consultation strategies?

If particular groups are being targeted for consultation or a representative sample of the population is being sought, it is important to gain a good understanding of the characteristics of the community and stakeholders. Staff that already works closely with specific communities will have an excellent understanding of the characteristics of its key stakeholders (individuals, groups, associations, institutions etc). For some target groups obtaining more detailed demographic information may prove beneficial – noting that Australian Bureau of Statistics information’s utility declines in the years following publication.

Part 3 will look at consultation practice, methodologies and techniques.


[1] Fearon 1998: 50
[2] Rowe and Fewer (2004)

The Importance of Being Consultative – Part 3

Developing consultation questions / hypotheses

Question versus Hypothesis

A hypothesis is a tentative statement that proposes a possible explanation to some phenomenon or event. A useful hypothesis is a testable statement, which may include a prediction e.g. reducing our reference collection may result in (more) patrons using our online reference tools.
Hypotheses should not be confused with a theory. Theories are general explanations based on a large amount of data.

When Are Hypotheses Used?

The key word is testable. That is, you will perform a test of how two variables might be related. This is when you are doing a real experiment. You are testing variables. Usually, a hypothesis is based on some previous observation such as – “we have noticed that since we conducted a big weed or the library’s reference collection in January 2009 there has been a steady increase in the use of our online databases.”

A hypothesis should be expressed simply and clearly – here are some examples:

  1. Chocolate may cause pimples.
  2. Salt in soil may affect plant growth.
  3. Plant growth may be affected by the colour of the light.
  4. Bacterial growth may be affected by temperature.
  5. Ultra violet light may cause skin cancer.
  6. Temperature may cause leaves to change colour.
  7. Books may encourage the imagination

When is a Question used?

A question is used to find general or specific information e.g. it attempts to illicit specific information such as your age, gender, your rating of a specific service, your willingness to participate in something etc.
– A question is something that needs or wants to be answered.
– A question is asked by someone trying to acquire knowledge about something

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” [Albert Einstein]

Things you need to consider when developing questions or stating a hypothesis are:

  • Ensure they are in plain English
  • Pilot them on staff from the same target group you intend to consult with and/or on a volunteer test group
  • Have them proof-read by someone who doesn’t work in a library to see if they make sense and are relevant
  • Before asking a question or testing a hypotheses determine how the responses / information gathered will be used i.e. if you’ve got no real use for the information don’t ask the question

Consultation Methodology / Techniques

Once you have determined your model of consultation i.e. as per the functions (participation goals) delineated in the Spectrum model:

  • Inform
  • Consult
  • Involve
  • Collaborate
  • Empower

And have ensured that you have:

  • Consistent goals for your consultation/s;
  • Know who is going to participate (which stakeholders?);
  • Know how the views, ideas etc expressed during consultations are to be assessed; and
  • Have researched the necessary background information / data e.g. demographics and other information about your community / stakeholders/ target groups

It is then time to consider which consultative tools or combination of tools you will use to consult.

Here are a few methods:

  • Face-to-face
    • Why face-to-face?
      • Examples of why face-to-face consultations can be useful – they are:
        • More personal
        • More immediate
        • Builds networks, relationships and community connection
        • Provides focus
        • Limits misunderstanding
        • Preferred by many to more impersonal consultation methods such as surveys

Face to face techniques include:

  • Focus Groups
    • Focus groups test hypotheses; and should have a moderator and a recorder.
  • Exit Interview
    • Exit interviews (surveys) are immediate and can provide useful insight into the success or validity of any given event or activity. Exit interviews can be verbal or via questionnaire.
  • Charrette
    • Charrette is a technique for consulting with all stakeholders to determine workable solutions to a given issue (e.g. a series of presentations allowing for critique and peer or community review). Sometimes known as enquiry by design, a Charrette typically involves intense and possibly multi-day meetings, involving key stakeholders. A successful Charrette promotes joint ownership of solutions and attempts to defuse typical confrontational attitudes between different stakeholders e.g. staff and management; Council and residents etc. Charrette’s tend to involve small groups, however the participants may not represent all the community/stakeholders nor have the moral authority to represent them.
  • Workshops
    • A workshop is a brief intensive seminar, course or a series of meetings emphasising interaction and exchange of information among a usually small number of participants.
  • Public Meetings
    • A public meeting usually takes the format of a presentation or number of presentations followed by a Question and Answer / feedback session. The meetings usually (or should) have a recorder (someone taking notes) and /or are recorded (audio/video) for later review.
  • Consultation Venues
    • When planning for and conducting any face-to-face consultation it is important to consider the consultation venue.
    • Wherever possible the venues selected should be:
      • Accessible (in every sense of the word)
      • Non-threatening and secure
      • Casual and relaxing
      • Open and airy (good natural light)
      • Free of any many distractions
      • Visible – i.e. easily seen; not hidden away

The same should be considered whether consulting onsite or offsite.

Food and Beverages

  • It is a good idea (wherever possible and/or appropriate) to at least provide fresh water at consultations. Food and other beverages may be more appropriate to some target groups than others e.g. consider any cultural sensitivities when planning your consultations.

Non face-to-face Techniques

  • Survey (electronic and/or paper-based questionnaires)
    • Surveys are a heavily used consultation tool and one that can be delivered in many different ways e.g. as a paper-based handout; via a mail out; online via your web page or email; by fax; or by telephone.
      • Strengths: Often easier to tabulate results (electronic version); a good way of obtaining both quantitative and qualitative data; easier to distribute; if distributed correctly they provide a good way to obtain a random sample; Where appropriate and relevant electronic survey results can be made available online for review by respondents
      • Weaknesses: The community are often bombarded with surveys by business and marketing companies, which may create some reluctance to respond; surveys are often too long / too time consuming; results aren’t always shared; changes / outcomes made aren’t always linked back to community input making it hard for respondents to know if their contributions have actually made a difference; questions are sometimes asked without any thought as to what the information will or could be used for.
  • Teleconference (telephone or online)
    • Small groups who are not available to meet face-to-to face for reasons of being too busy or geographic location most often use this tool. It is not widely used for consultation purposes but can assist with receiving feedback on the outcomes of a consultation or as part of the pre-planning of a consultation. Tools include telephone and VOIP options such as Skype for video as well as voice conferencing.


The web has allowed the development of a whole new range of consultation and collaboration tools i.e. Web 2.0. Examples of web based consultation tools include:

  • The Wiki: is a website that allows multiple users to create, modify, comment and organise web page content in a collaborative manner
  • The Blog: An online journal type tool that can be used to keep people up to date with your progress on a given project; feedback received to date etc
  • Forums: Online discussion groups (e.g. specific forums set up by Councils; associations; Twitter etc
  • Online Survey tools: for example Survey Monkey; Zoomerang
  • Community Social Networking and Consultation Websites: for example purpose built consultation sites like “Bang the Table” (
    • Bang the Table was established because “no matter how well designed, current consultation processes are, they inevitably only reach part of a community or stakeholder group. The Internet provides an opportunity to give vastly more people access to information and to have their say. Bang the Table is a new tool for engaging in collaborative learning, discussion, and debate”

There are many other web-based tools that make collaborative consultation possible e.g. Google Documents (for working collaboratively on documents); Doodle (for setting up consultation meetings); Polls – often included on websites to gauge ‘public/user’ views; online rating systems such as the 5 star system being used by sites such as Amazon and some library catalogues to obtain user views on how good or bad an item is – this often incorporates a review submission facility.

Strengths: It’s immediate; you can provide input in your own time and at your own pace; you can remain anonymous; you’re more likely to see the results of online consultation
Weaknesses: Use of online tools is not prevalent amongst all target groups – perhaps reducing the validity of any data / sample; Accuracy levels aren’t as trustworthy (given ability to remain anonymous); there’s a possibility of key interest groups dominating the input/feedback


When planning your consultations and have carefully considered who your target stakeholders are etc it is VERY important that you work out the best way to communicate and promote what you’re doing

That is:

  • To let them know you’re wanting to consult with them;
  • Why you want to consult with them;
  • How you’d like to consult with them; and
  • Where you would like to consult with them (venue)

This planning is to ensure that you reach the right people/groups etc to achieve a representative sample; and that you don’t end up wasting people’s time.

Consider communication via:

  • The local media
  • Via association and special interest group newsletters
  • Promotional posters etc in the library
  • Verbal promotion by desk/counter staff
  • Website – your website and other relevant sites


Wherever possible, don’t carry out your consultations at a time not convenient for the community and/or ensure there are multiple opportunities to obtain a relevant and appropriate sample. Inconvenient timing can be seen as an attempt to ‘limit’ consultation i.e. If you were really interested in my opinion you wouldn’t have held your consultation during normal working hours!

Some examples of poor timing would include:

  • School Holidays (this might be a relevant time for some consultations);
  • During major sporting events
  • At the end of the year


This presentation on the importance of being consultative has really only scratched the surface but hopefully has given you some meaningful insight into community consultation methodology and techniques; and some of the possible traps and pitfalls.

Remember the following when planning for and conducting consultations:

  1. Think about what you want to find out (need to know)
  2. Think about why you want the information
  3. Think about how you’re going to use it (apply it)
  4. Think about who’s going to use the information and what for
  5. Ensure that your consultation groups etc a representative
  6. Communicate the outcomes of your consultations to all those involved so they at least know that they’ve been heard / understood correctly
  7. If you get it wrong analyse why and learn from your mistakes
  8. Don’t over consult or you’ll never get anything done!