As the latest post in my series of top 10 tips for running an effective public consultation – many of them learnt the hard way – here’s Tip 3: Be inclusive – within limits.

It’s vital to stay focused on your objectives when running a consultation as it’s so easy to get pulled off course – especially when issues are controversial, everyone’s piling in with views, objections and demands and the pressure mounts.

This is particularly important when deciding who – and how widely – to consult.

 

Inclusiveness

You should, of course, be inclusive.

You’ll need to work hard at the outset to identify all the people most affected by your proposals and with the strongest interests in them. Engage these thoroughly. And if others emerge as the process unfolds, make sure they’re included too.

With people affected who are reluctant or find it difficult to take part – so-called ‘hard to reach’ groups – you may need to go to considerable efforts to encourage them to get involved.

In many cases, it’s also appropriate to make your consultation open to others beyond these core consultees, even if you don’t seek them out. This way, they’ll know what’s going on and can give views if they wish. This often means publicising proposals via the media and having information, with a response mechanism, on web sites and social media channels.

 

Focus

But – and here’s where the need to focus comes in – I firmly believe that you need to set limits on your inclusiveness: you don’t have to consult all and sundry proactively, despite what some may lead you to believe.

Attempting to over-consult is a mistake organisations sometimes make – usually because of a well-intentioned over-eagerness to please.

Actively consulting too widely is a drain on your time, energy and budget. It dilutes the views of those who are most affected by proposals and so most need to be heard.

It’s also a waste of consultees’ time. And if you’re engaging them on issues that don’t greatly affect them, it can lead to confusion and unnecessary concern.

More than this, if you get into the habit of consulting too broadly, it will mean you’ll be asking too many people’s views too often – and consultation fatigue will set in. The result will be poor quality feedback – and consultees who are reluctant to engage in the future when you may really need their input.

OK, you’ll always get some who’ll object to any limits you put on whom you’re consulting. Someone on the periphery of an issue usually feels they should be at its centre.

I ran one exercise about a highly localised development where we only had the scope to consult a certain number of people face-to-face. We prioritised those living within a half mile radius – but someone eight miles away was outraged that she wasn’t invited.

If you’ve thought through your strategy well, however, you can stand your ground and explain why you’ve set your boundaries.  And if your exercise is at least open to feedback from everyone, they still have a chance to give views.

 

So my third tip is to be inclusive – within limits.

Energetically engage those most affected. Go to extra effort to involve hard-to-reach groups.  But don’t be drawn into trying to consult the whole world.

 

More to follow soon on my other tips for effective public consultation.

What are your recommendations for running great exercises?

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