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Public Consultation Process - Best Practices

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With communication becoming part of the life, flow of information and public awareness has tremendously improved all over the world. This scene is no different in India also. With that citizens are increasingly becoming active and demanding their due share of services. Even the political class and the bureaucracy is getting sensitized to these aspirations. Even though the percentage of such politicians, ministers and babus are few in number but is good sign of things to come.

With big ticket projects specially in the urban sectors are planned and executed all across the country, the concerned citizens and civic activist are demanding to have their say in the project designs, implementation and execution. They are even demanding the implementation of big projects and ideas where the government has failed to foresee and included in their big scheme of things. Public-Private-Participation becoming a most preferred route for big ticket projects, planners and advisors are forced to include the public participation and consultation in the project life cycle. Even though it is a good sign of transparency, but the way public consultation process is executed is lot to be desired. Even the best of the minds and known management experts seems to have not done justice to this important public consultation process in the projects in which they were involved.

Having said all these let us understand some basics of public consultation and best practices that have been practiced in other places. I would like to share some publicly available information on Public Consultation Process.

NOTE: The information given below is extracted from public sources and shared for information purposes only.


Wikepedia (
International Association of Public Participation’s (
Councillor David Kirkham, Leader of Nottinghamshire County Council (http://www.nottinghamshir...)

According to Wikepedia - "Public consultation, or simply consultation, is a regulatory process by which the public's input on matters affecting them is sought. Its main goals are in improving the efficiency, transparency[1] and public involvement in large-scale projects or laws and policies. It usually involves notification (to publicise the matter to be consuled on), consultation (a two-way flow of information and opinion exchange) as well as participation (involving interest groups in the drafting of policy or legislation).[1]".

International Association of Public Participation’s sets out seven core values that underpin engagement with the public.  These are:

   1. The public should have a say in decisions that affect their lives.
   2. We promise that the public's contribution will inform the decision.
   3. We will communicate the interests and meet the needs of participants.
   4. We wil actively seek out and support public involvement.
   5. We will allow participants to define how they participate.
   6. We will provide participants with the information they need to take part in a meaningful way.
   7. We will communicate to participants how their input affected the decision.

What is Consultation?

The International Association of Public Participation identifies the goal of consultation as, ‘to obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions.’ IAP2 ‘Foundations of public participation’ brochure 2003.

In the UK, the Consultation Institute describes consultation as, ‘the dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based upon a genuine exchange of views, and normally with the objective of influencing decisions, policies or programmes of action.’ Consultation Institute Charter 2004.

Consultation is NOT:

    * telling people about a Council decision that has already been made
    * day to day engagement with stakeholders – for example through local strategic partnership meetings
    * asking people to report complaints or suggestions
    * giving people advice on council (or other authority) services.

Arnstein's ladder of participation
Consultation falls within a continuum of public participation and involvement.  In the 1960s Arnstein developed an eight-rung ladder with steps representing increasing levels of public participation.  This eight-rung ladder can be simplified as follows:

   1. Information giving – letting people know what we do.
   2. Consultation – inviting people to have a say before we make a decision.
   3. Acting together – involving people and coming to a joint decision.
   4. Supporting – helping others do something instead of the Council.

Consultation and market research

Consultation is different from market research even though they both involve getting to know more about our customers. They have inherently different objectives though they may use similar techniques.

Consultation is an open and transparent activity; it has its own standards and is usually highly inclusive.  In consulting the public or stakeholders an organisation usually commits to telling them about its business and involving them in it.  How the consultation is conducted, its purpose and results are normally published, as should be the impact of the consultation on the organisation’s decision-making or activities.

Market research is essentially a private activity; an organisation using it is under no obligation to include everyone, to tell anyone what they are doing or why, or publish their results. 

Public Engagement
Public engagement is the foundation of good consultation. 

   1. Establishes a relationship
   2. Fixes the ground-rules
   3. Sets expectations
   4. Exchanges goals.

If a relationship with a particular audience is not established before a consultation begins it must be developed before useful results can be obtained. 

The consultation challenges
In drawing up these guides the Council asked a selection of consultation practitioners and key stakeholders about consultation and engagement in the county.  Four key areas of concern were raised:

   1. Consultation is generally carried out too late to influence the decision.
   2. The same stakeholder audiences are repeatedly consulted.
   3. The same methods are used each time, without regard to either the nature of the consultation or the audience.
   4. The consultation process ends when a decision is taken and no feedback is given to consultees.

Five types of consultation
There are five main types of consultation:
   1. Organisational goals and priorities, where an organisation invites an audience to help identify what it should do.
   2. Policy guidance, such as budget consultation, where an organisation asks for help on one aspect of its activity to better align it with the publics’ requirements or views.
   3. Option appraisal, where an organisation invites the public to assist in resolving the choices it faces.
   4. Mitigation, where an organisation intends to do something that may not be popular, for example consultation about a locally unpopular land use (known as LULU), but wants to investigate how the action or decision can be made more palatable.
   5. Performance, where an organisation invites comments on its activity and seeks help in improving its service delivery.

The five stage process

The Consultation Institute has identified five stages to the consultation process.  These simple steps will help ensure a successful consultation and avoid the concerns expressed by our consultees.

1. Design - planning effective consultation

Consultation needs to be planned as an integral part of overall project plans, not just an afterthought once proposals/policies have been developed.  As large scale consultations will take more than six months to carry out, it is crucial to plan consultation as early as possible.

The planning process must ensure that consultation is carried out to the standards required by the Council within time and resource constraints.  This means that consultation plans usually require a degree of negotiation which can add to the length of the planning process.  Organising pre-consultation with key stakeholders is invaluable and often helps to quickly identify the essential elements of a public engagement plan.

2. Targeting - selecting your audience
Many consultations involve the same stakeholders time and again.  Some organisations are missed out and others simply do not have the resources or interest to respond.  It is easy to say that we want to consult with everybody that is affected or has an interest in the decision; it is a lot harder to identify specific individuals and organisations and then to contact them.

In identifying your target audience you need to consider the following:

    * who (organisations and/or individuals)
    * type of stakeholders and other statutory bodies
    * public
    * service users/non-users
    * employees
    * where (locality/area boundaries).

3. Methods - capturing people's views

The best methods to use are determined by your target audience.  Experience and pre-consultation meetings with key consultees can act as a guide.  Additional information is available in ‘How to' guide 5 – Methods - capturing peoples' views.

A successful method with one target audience may not work as well on another occasion or with a different audience.  It is important to remain flexible rather than to rely on a single favoured technique.  Think of the consultation from the consultees’ point of view and how they may wish to be approached this time.

4.Feedback - keeping consultees informed

Our consultees have told us they want us to improve the way we handle the latter stages of a consultation.  Consultees need to know the results of the consultation itself, they need to know what decision was made as a result and they need to be able to see how the Council used their views in coming to the decision. These requirements define the three phases of feedback.

This is a record of what consultees said during the consultation.  It is needed to inform the decision-making process that follows.  But, it should also be provided to all consultees as well as the Customer Management Team to include on the consultation database.

When the decision has been made following consultation, this too needs to be communicated to consultees. 

Consultees should be provided with a brief explanation of the issues addressed in coming to a decision and the reasons why a particular choice was made.

5. Influencing - making the decision

Sufficient time must be allowed for stakeholders and the public to influence the Council’s decision-making process.  The Council’s decision-makers also need time to consider the results of relevant consultations.

Good decision-making is transparent.  Consultees need to know:

   1. Who is taking the decision.
   2. Why the Council took one decision rather than another. 

A ‘notice of decision’ should be produced to complete the consultation process.  This informs consultees of the Council’s position on each of the major issues raised in the consultation and, where the Council’s decision conflicts with the views of consultees, the Council’s reasons and any proposed mitigation. 



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