Public Consultation is a huge topic so we've broken it down to several sections for you, starting with exactly what is public consultation, when it is required, the benefits of public consultation when it’s done right, and the tools you need to achieve successful consultation processes.
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Public consultation is a process that involves the public in providing their views and feedback on a proposal to consider in the decision-making.
Underpinning effective consultation are two key assumptions. Firstly, that the public are perfectly capable of making sense of complex issues. Secondly, that decision makers are not necessarily expert on the issues for which they are deciding or debating. Evidence suggests that this holds true for the vast majority of cases.
Over the last decade, approaches to public consultation have ranged from short-term programs to meet the regulatory requirements to a longer-term focus on relationship building and proactive risk management. Today, the terms Public Consultation and Stakeholder Engagement are emerging as inclusive and continuous dialogue between a company (or decision maker) and the public (or stakeholders) that encompasses a range of activities and approaches, and spans the entire life of the project.
The public, often referred to as stakeholders, are individuals and organisations that are affected directly or indirectly by a project or a decision, as well as those who have the ability to influence the decision, both positively and negatively. They can also be people who simply have an interest in the project.
Policy makers and project proponents will often need to strike a balance between consulting those who are significantly affected by a proposal and consulting a wider group of people who will not be directly affected, but who will have a reasonable fear that they might be, or will have strong feelings about an issue. The matter of defining the ‘public concerned’ for a consultation is highly fractious as it is often a factor of the available resources.
Questions that help identify the “public” or “stakeholders”:
Who is affected by this decision? - For example, the local community, neighbours, landowners, local businesses.
Who may have influence on the decision? - For example, the centre and local government departments, religious leaders, politicians.
Who knows about the subject? - for example, the academic community, NGOs
Who has an interest in the subject? - For example, community groups, groups with special interests.
Here are some free e-books that provide a lot of information and practical advice on various aspects of planning, managing and evaluating consultation programs.
“Good consultation costs money but poor consultation can cost a lot more”
Successful public consultation means different things to different individuals and organisations. For some, it means improving their brand image, increased stakeholder support and reduced external risks. For others, it is about meeting regulatory or lender requirements, or gaining broad community support to obtain ‘social license to operate’. Although success may look a little different for companies and organisations operating in different market sectors, most of them agree that high quality stakeholder management and engagement helps achieve better project outcomes.
Benefits of public consultation include:
For most sectors, public or private, public consultation is generally required during the planning phase.
For governments, consultation can be applied to a range of topics such as draft legislation and rules, budgets, policy development and spatial planning.
In the case of the European Commission, stakeholder consultations are carried out to support the preparation of:
In the United Kingdom there is only voluntary, blanket guidance for government departments and other public bodies for engaging stakeholders when developing policy or legislation. However, there are legal duties for certain government bodies to consult such as the NHS Act 2006 Section 14Z2 for health commissioning groups and the Planning Act 2008, which requires pre-application consultation on nationally significant infrastructure projects. Specific legal obligations may also be straddled by a number of non-specific statutory requirements such as:
There are different public consultation and disclosure standards set by the regulators and borrowers for the private sectors. And the consultation requirements can depend on the level of anticipated social and environmental risks and impacts a project is likely to create. For example, the Equator banks (borrowers) require projects with potential significant adverse impacts in non-OECD countries to undertake vigorous consultation and disclosure activities throughout the project’s lifecycle to the bank’s satisfaction that the project has adequately incorporated affected communities’ concerns.
It is important to note that when consultation activities are driven by rules and requirements, the consultation rarely extends beyond the planning phase and is seldom integrated into the core business activities. Over the last decade, approaches to public consultation have chance from short-term means of meeting the regulatory requirements to a longer-term focussing on relationship building and proactive risk management.
The most intense period of planned public participation will likely take place during the feasibility and EIA process, which will help determine whether or not to proceed (by project proponent, sponsors and the regulator) with the new project. Most information about stakeholder concerns, issues, and opportunities are often collected from targeted consultations directed related to the EIA studies.
The nature, scale and frequency of consultation should be relative to the level of risks and potential impacts the proposal is likely to create.
Ideally a good public consultation process will be:
To learn more about what a good public consultation process looks like, read our blog post on Key Principles of Good Public Consultation by clicking on the Read More button below.
Not all public participation is the same; there are numerous levels at which you might wish to engage with the public based on the project, the stakeholders, and the decisions to be made.
To identify the appropriate level of public participation for your project, the ultimate question to answer is:
How much potential influence on the decision or action are you willing to provide to the public?
The answer to this question is critical to the design and ultimate success of your public participation program.
The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)’s Public Participation Spectrum is a useful guide in helping organisations determine which approach and techniques are most suitable for their projects. Small projects with minimum impact may only require engagement at the “inform” level while projects with high potential significant adverse impacts may adopt a more sophisticated approach to effectively reach the engagement goals.
The purpose of a Public Consultation and Disclosure Plan (PCDP) is to describe a company’s strategy and program for engaging with the stakeholders, whether it is for a single project, a range of operations or for the entire organisation. It is a process that provides opportunities for stakeholders to express their issues and concerns about the proposal, and allows the company to consider and respond to them. The goal is to ensure timely provision of relevant and understandable project information and encourage the public to provide meaningful input into the decision-making process for better project outcomes.
To see an example framework for a PCPD click on the image below.
In general, public participation is another term that is used for public consultation (and stakeholder engagement). Broadly, both these terms refer to a process of involving the public (stakeholders) in providing their views and feedback on a proposal to consider in the decision-making.
Although most people use these terms to describe the same process, some may say that ‘consultation’ and ‘participation’ are two forms of interaction with interested members of the public. In detail:
Even for people who consider ‘consultation’ and ‘participation’ as separate forms of interaction with stakeholders, most agree that these forms of interaction are often mingled with public consultation programs, complementing and overlapping each other.
Having a consultation ‘log’ helps answer basic (but important) questions about the stakeholder engagement activities: Who has been consulted about a particular issue? Where and when did consultation or engagement activities take place? What were the results? More importantly, did the team make any commitments? Have they been followed up on?
The benefits of having a public consultation system are many. It may be part of the regulatory or lending requirements, or an effective tool to demonstrate that the company listens to the stakeholders and incorporates their feedback in the project outcomes. Some other advantages of having a stakeholder management system are:
How sophisticated the documentation system is depending on the scale and nature of your project. It can range from a simple excel spreadsheet, an access database, to a more sophisticated stakeholder engagement software tailored for your needs. See below for some advice on how to select the right system for your needs.
When it comes to a time where you need a stakeholder database or consultation software, trying to decide what stakeholder management database to employ can be hard and a little confusing. You want something that works best for your current needs but is also easy to be expanded/ downgraded in the future. We’ve put together a simple flowchart to help you navigate through some of the basic considerations.
Here are some free ebooks and articles that delve a little deeper into different areas of public consultation and stakeholder engagement so you can take your learning to the next level. Enjoy your read and get in touch if you have any questions. We would love to hear your feedback.
We're always happy to share our knowledge and expertise. Get in touch and let us know what your think of the resources on this page. If your are interested in some advice, having us create more useful resources, or to find out more about the terrific software we have created for public consultation, please get in touch!