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!
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One Response to The Importance of Being Consultative – Part 3

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