Giving people the chance to shape big decisions affecting their lives is a great idea. But can you have too much of a good thing? At home in Durham, Copper’s Polly Rourke reflects on her own experience so far this year.
It’s May. So far this year I’ve been consulted on changes to local GPs, a North East elected mayor, and the next police and crime commissioner. Thank you Durham Council for not having an election. The only doormat not obliterated by EU referendum leaflets is the one by the fire exit.
The last thing any consultation practitioner needs is for their well-meaning literature to be consigned to the junk mail. It’s a phenomenal waste of time and money, a missed opportunity to gather vital information, not to mention a risk to planning outcomes.
That’s why understanding people is important, particularly the strategies they develop for sifting and deciding which information needs attention and what can be safely binned.
Let’s use my household as a completely non-scientific case study. First, me. A diligent citizen with a more-than-usual interest in consultation techniques, I give a considered response to everything I’m asked. My partner only opens the mail in order to separate the envelopes from the rest of the recycling. My daughter, a student, never feels knowledgeable enough, flimflams for a while, and then finds something more interesting. Meanwhile, across town, my dad reads everything meticulously, works out how it should be done better, then writes to his MP.
OK, I’m being flippant, but this snapshot is a pretty typical of the spread of responses we find in consultation exercises. Those with more time and experience respond more frequently and in depth than people who are time-poor or young.
Meaningful consultation for the purposes of the Planning Act means using a range of strategies to engage with hard-to-reach groups. Some involve using different and emerging techniques imaginatively, such as social media, pop-up shops and forums. The strength and accessibility of the message is also important. Positive, super-relevant, active narratives are the most well-read. By that I mean they say something clear, specific and at the right time to the people who are receiving them, as well as being honest, well laid-out, not too wordy and provide a call to action.
The good news for infrastructure projects is that they have a head start. Copper’s ‘Attitudes to Infrastructure’ research found that people of all ages and demographics are genuinely hungry to know more about major projects in their area. Even better news is that it’s actually one of the items they’d like to get through their door!
Our job as communicators is to make sure our messages are heard above the rest of the noise. That means creating really positive, honest engagement which is relevant to people, their families, communities and aspirations and which, ultimately, demonstrates that value to planners and decisions makers. At Copper, we readily accept that challenge!