By Fiona Curran Lonergan.
So what is “public consultation”? Well, it is defined as “the dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based upon a genuine exchange of views and, with the objective of influencing decisions, policies or programmes of action” (The Consultation Institute).
It is used by policy makers and organisations as a method to seek the views of citizens on their policies and projects, to build understanding and to use the views gathered to inform their policies and projects respectively.
Public consultation itself has been around for a very long time and can be traced back to roots in citizen participation in Ancient Greece! The requirement for policy makers and project promoters has a legal basis. For example, for projects with potential impacts on the environment, the UNECE “Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters” of 1998 set a legal requirement and paved a path for increased public participation.
Traditionally in Ireland and beyond, public consultation has used traditional, well tried and trusted methods aimed at informing the public and gathering their views. These methods include newspaper advertisements, hard copy letters, public open days and staffed information offices hard-copy information (such as reports or draft policies) and feedback forms where the public’s views on a new policy or a proposed project are sought. Increasingly, public consultation practitioners are employing digital methods to consult with the public either as a blend with traditional tools and with some choosing to limit consultation to purely digital techniques (e.g. online questionnaires). When deciding on the most appropriate tool, it is critical to consider the target group from whom you are seeking feedback. This will ensure your method is inclusive, accessible and will facilitate people whose views you want to hear to be able to participate. This is particularly important, for example, when consulting with stakeholders in rural parts of the country not yet serviced by high speed broadband.
Thanks to the digital age, we are seeing greater participation in consultation and increased interest in projects that we’re living in. With digital methods, it is possible to consult with a wider group of people at an earlier stage in the policy or project formative stage.
However, despite the increased access and familiarity with digital technology, some of our consultations still receive a significant, and often the largest proportion of views/feedback in hard copy format. The reason? Well, we’ve been told by many Irish people that they still like to put “pen to paper” and consider their thoughts over a cup of tea. In other cases, it’s because they don’t have broadband, access to internet, and more plainly because they just prefer to have a record of their views made through postal tracking systems. I expect this will gradually shift with the roll out of national broadband, with increased training and familiarity with digital technology and above all trust that what you said on your tin will get to the paint shop!
More and more public consultations are taking place nowadays with people being consulted and asked their opinion of a wide variety of topics, policies and projects. People may choose to submit their views via the traditional methods but more and more people are hearing about policies/projects via social media and we often see mobilisation of interest groups via Facebook and Twitter. This can sometimes make it difficult for some people to discuss their views openly online, particularly if they are perceived to be going against the grain of popular sentiment.
Given this trend, it is all the more important for policy makers and project proposers to ensure that factual and accurate information is provided and is easily accessible. Consequently, development of infographics and animated video content is becoming a larger component of our consultation toolbox when informing and consulting with the public. A recent example of a video produced by RPS Project Communications for a client’s project is available below.
As the well-known idiom goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, and their use can quickly and simply explain complex projects and policy issues. In recent years, we have seen a significant shift in the quantity and content of submissions made by people in response to public consultation – which has come about via increased awareness through online and social media platforms.
Looking to the future and what tools the public consultation practitioner will use, I think we will see increased engagement by policy makers and project proposers with social media – although social media will need to have matured by then to facilitate an inclusive and informed debate where all views can be expressed and respected. Video will be more widely used on social media – enabling people to view the terms of reference of a consultation and background information – in the comfort of their own space, home and using their technology of choice and availability (e.g. tablet, phone).
As a result of the pressure on people’s availability and time, we will see a shift in hosting of physical open days to online meetings and forums where technology facilitates live and interactive Q&A with policy makers/project proposers. In this vein, there will also be more increased use of e-consultation and e-questionnaires instead of hard copy, printed versions.
I anticipate the use of feedback kiosks growing – a tool that can be placed in a public place, such as a library, shopping centre or school/college where people can choose to either tell the screen their views or use a touch screen key-pad to enter information. For some this will eliminate the barrier of literacy issues associated with the completion of written feedback and/or freedom of speech issues. There will also be an option to download an app of the feedback kiosk where you can locally input your feedback/views using your smartphone or tablet.
As I mentioned already about the picture being worth a 1000 words, consulting in the future will make use of existing technologies and build and adapt them for use in public consultation. For example, I think there will be a significant increase in the use of participatory GIS. GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is a tool widely used at present to capture, store and analyse data linked to any particular location. Participatory GIS will use GIS to engage and consult with people on particular issues (e.g. flooding) using digitised maps and imagery.
Social media will never replace direct engagement as meaningful consultation builds understanding as well as addressing issues and concerns, but tools like Twitter and Facebook ensure we reach all our audiences with engaging content that helps to create awareness and understanding.