As the latest in my Top 10 Consultation Tips series, my fifth tip is: be as accessible as possible to your consultees.

This means thinking carefully about the format of activities, your communications channels, timescales and venues. But it does not – contrary to what many seem to think – simply mean being ‘digital by default’!

Reasons to bother

The reasons for being accessible probably go without saying. It ensures wider involvement, better quality feedback, a more robust consultation process and happier consultees.

If you’re not accessible enough, on the other hand, the feedback you get is likely to be skewed by coming only from those who could easily reach you – or were motivated enough to make the effort.

You could have complaints on your hands from people who felt unable to get involved. Your entire process could be open to challenge. It could damage your reputation, leaving people suspecting that you deliberately hid away to avoid listening.

So how should you go about being accessible?

Start with your audience 

Your basic starting point is a clear view of your target consultees. My third tip dealt with this and recommended an inclusive approach – within limits.

Having defined your target consultees, you can then work on ensuring you’re fully accessible to them by thinking through who they are, where they are, their lifestyles and working patterns and how they’ll want to get involved.

 

Not ‘digital by default’

But one thing that concerns me greatly is the trend for organisations to state that their consultation policy is to be ‘digital by default.’

Sure, this is the banner for a worthwhile government initiative to put more and more public services online, which will reduce costs, cut down tedious paperwork and make life easier for most. I’m not sure many people will miss the paper tax return.

If such a policy, applied to consultation, means making information and a response mechanism available online and, say, using social media to encourage people to take part, that’s typically a necessary measure and a very good thing.

But too many are treating this buzz phrase as licence to consult people online only. Stick some info up on a web site with a few boxes to tick = consultation job done.

This may be fine some simple issues. But it’s lazy at best – and cowardly or negligent at worst – in situations with any degree of complexity, sensitivity or controversy.

In such cases, far deeper means of engagement are necessary, usually through various forms of face-to-face discussion.

 

Factors to consider

In planning this, accessibility is all about carefully considering:

  • What mix of formats will be most effecxtive – e.g. surveys, workshop sessions, public meetings, exhibitions, focus groups, one-to-one interviews?
  • Are your activities and materials suitable for all the ages and knowledge levels of the people you’re consulting?
  • How will you ensure feedback isn’t dominated by those who shout loudest?
  • How many sessions do you need to hold to be sufficiently available?
  • When should you hold these to fit in with people’s busy lives?
  • Where should they take place, to make it easy for people to take part? Think of location as well as the suitability of the venues, for example for people with disabilities or parents with children
  • How will you make people aware of the sessions? It doesn’t matter when or where you hold them if no-one knows they’re happening.

All simple common sense – but many consultations fall down on such basic accessibility points.

So my fifth tip is to be as accessible as possible – and that this does not simply mean sticking something up on a web site!

 

More consultation tips to follow soon. Meanwhile, you can find out more here about our public consultation & community engagement services.