The latest post in my Top 10 Consultation Tips series is about being mindful that, unless your proposals are extremely straight forward, you’ll not just be collating people’s views but answering their questions too.

That sounds obvious, I know: after all, consultation events are as much about informing people of proposals as about hearing what they think, aren’t they?

But many under-prepare for this part of the job. And one exercise I ran was almost derailed by a barrage of vexatious questions we weren’t geared up to answer …



It’s no surprise that there’s a clear link between the complexity of proposals and the number of questions you’ll get. However well you’ve tried to explain them, people may still be unclear about some aspects and want to know more.

And there’s a correlation between how concerned people are about your scheme and the questions they’ll ask. If they fear the worst, they’ll want to understand every aspect and exactly how it could affect them.


Onerous questions

I also once conducted an exercise for a contentious scheme which had a group of consultees up in arms. They evidently got together behind the scenes to wage a campaign of onerous questions – in an attempt to wreck the consultation process and kill off the project.

It seemed their goal was to try to bury us and the public authority responsible beneath the weight of their enquiries – and to gain the chance to cry foul wherever they didn’t get answers: ‘You’ve failed to confirm XYZ detail, so we can’t respond and the scheme can’t go ahead.’



So what’s the best way to handle consultation questions?

It’s clearly a good idea to prepare as thoroughly as possible – going through the discipline of anticipating questions that are likely to be asked, developing clear answers and making sure you have the people on hand to answer them consistently across the team.  The professionalism and credibility of your consultation depends on this.

For complex or large-scale exercises, this may well mean fielding a dedicated team for a number of weeks that’s briefed to answer these questions – and able to find out more when they can’t.

And where consultees ask reasonable questions that you haven’t anticipated, it’s only fair to find out the answers and get back to them as soon as you can.


Staying in control

Deliberately vexatious questions are a different matter. It’s important to avoid being side-tracked by these and to stay in control of the process.

The fundamental point, of course, is that it’s not necessary nor reasonable to have every detail worked out for a scheme being consulted upon. In fact, it’s the nature of early stage developments that the intracacies of the project aren’t usually yet defined.

In the case of our consultation which sparked an organised campaign of attack, it almost threw us at first. But we stood firm in explaining that we wouldn’t answer their questions because they probed a level of detail beyond what had been defined at that point.

We insisted that we were consulting instead on outline proposals and broad principles. And, vitally, we strongly advised people not to let the absence of finer details stop them from giving us their views. Waiting for such details would mean they’d have lost the opportunity to influence the proposals in their early stages.

This didn’t make everyone happy – certainly not those who were only attempting to disrupt the project.  But most people understood. It gave them the chance to have their say. And it kept us firmly in control of the consultation process.


What’s your experience of handling questions during consultation exercises? Any examples of how that went particularly badly or well?

More tips to follow soon.

And you can find out more here about our public consultation services.