Community Consultation – Merit and Approach

Community Consultation 

These days everybody has an expectation to be consulted, yet there is a difference between public participation and community consultation in planning.   

The requirement for community consultation is enshrined in planning legislation as well as State Planning policy and planning regulations. This establishes a requirement that it be done, however the quality of the participation or the usefulness of results does not appear to rate as much as the appearance that it has been done.   

Participation is more than consultation because it implies an involvement of the public from the ground up or at least at several stages in the gestation of a plan.  Local government is often the frontline of community participation and parallel to this, the community is almost constantly in dialogue with the local government about local issues.  Conflict lies at the heart of this dialogue and so there can be a skewing of information and objectivity.  It is all about sociology and struggle.  

Due to the ability, energy, and willingness of some to push their own agenda and yet for others to get along with their life and not compete for feedback time. – it is necessary for skillful mediation of community feedback and influence, to achieve a workable balance and respect for all positions. 

Where community consultation goes wrong.  

The private sector is regularly tasked to complete public consultation, and indeed many projects perfunctorily include consultation exercises as a component of each study.  This adds time and a significant cost to the proper delivery of a project.  

In practice, however many projects = much consultation, much of it with different consultants.   

The community becomes tired of constant enquiry, probing, workshopping and surveys, with much of that resulting in no apparent benefit of outcome.  They may see this as being ‘played’.   

Consultation fatigue is a real phenomenon.  

Over-consultation and inappropriate timing for multiple projects can cause community distrust about the motivation for that consultation exercise, especially when conclusions may well have been drawn ahead of any community discussion.   

Local politicians and stakeholders’ recoil from attending situations where they might be publicly criticized or wedged by skillful public lobby groups.  

Land Insights advocates for informed discussion as early as possible in a planning task– and the first step involves providing the community with a clear picture of the facts, the issue, the options and roles of agencies and individuals.  

This sets the groundwork for fair participation on a common level of access and knowledge.   Once informed, the participants may then choose to continue or to trust the process to deliver a sensible outcome.  

Information is an important step in ensuring informed consultation has occurred, yet this is often overlooked.  Deficient information can divert community energy, mounting diversionary protest and breaking down collaboration.  Should it occur and continue, it can also confuse and bewilder people, this can make them recoil from further participation.   

Workshops are a ready way for consultants and government to demonstrate a consultation event has occurred, yet such an approach can be non-productive and unsatisfying for participants.   

The following lists the causes for workshops to fail:- 

  • Lack of preparation of participants and organizers 
  • Superficiality of discussion and activity 
  • Poor scope for the topic to be covered. 
  • Expecting people to be comfortable with discussing technical and complex matters 
  • Poor briefing, documentation and reporting, and lack of follow up.  
  • Domination of lobby groups: intimidation of minority views  
  • Manipulation of participants and their feedback.   
  • Rushing or overlooking important issues and expressed reservations.  

This potential to fail not only results in bad results for that project, but it also burns goodwill for future public participation.   

The skill of planning and executing participation is to channel information to those who can make the most use of it when forming their position.  The process must also allow for the community to have flexibility, to feel comfortable for them to shift their position when they better understand the options and future risks of certain decisions.   

Land Insights uses techniques which go to the heart of the issues closely affecting the public and these allow expression of the issues in their own words and with emphasis on values and emotions.   

There have been successful public participation programs organised for these types of studies:- 

  • Local planning – schemes strategies and policies.  
  • Main street and urban design  
  • Coastal environment and landscape plans 
  • Development projects – informing the community about the whole package.  

Public participation is a process which can enrich all plans and as well, the engagement of the public and involvement at many levels.  Done thoughtfully, it can deliver a more thorough sense of ownership and responsibility for implementation.   

For more information of how we could help you with your project or community consultation please get in touch.

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