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)

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