Digital consultation tools needed for the future, webinar discusses

Digital consultation tools can help developers and councils to establish a two-way conversation with residents and are “becoming the norm”, the latest Voice of Authority webinar has heard.

Two town hall officers who have harnessed the power of online engagement with their communities discussed how they have listened to opinions, started meaningful conversation on projects, and reduced long-term costs by taking on board what people say.

They were joined on the webinar by Mike Saunders, chief executive and co-founder of Commonplace, which provides a comprehensive online consultation platform to cities, councils and developers around the country.

He explained how digital tools can build trust in a project, bring communities closer to decision-makers, and provide insight to a scheme, as well as being run alongside traditional face-to-face consultation methods.

“You can move people from gut reactions they have to new plans to a place where they might not necessarily agree with everything but they want to have a constructive conversation”, he said.

Paula Ellis, corporate engagement manager for the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, told how a Commonplace platform has been providing vital information on how key workers have been travelling to and from work during the coronavirus pandemic. “The future is digital engagement, and it is here to stay”, she said, adding it was “becoming the norm”.

“Social media is key. Traditional emails and phone conversations are a lot slower in reaching the public.”

The panel discussed how up-to-date information on communities responding to a project can help to shape the conversation when presented back to people, using online tools or presenting the data on tablets during face-to-face meetings.

“If you are getting good messages, that social media will grow and grow”, said Ellis. “It makes people want to re-engage and get involved in the future.”

Saunders agreed that social media is a force that can be harnessed to positive effect: “Don’t be afraid of interaction on these channels”, he told the audience. “If you engage you will get a very positive response and if you don’t, the void will be filled by others engaging in this space.”

Mark Bland, programme manager at Mini Holland, in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, discussed how digital engagement had helped to sculpt a controversial project according to views of residents.

He said “robust” consultations were key when the authority was battling protests outside the town hall and successfully defending a Judicial Review challenge. He said: “The digital platforms helped us to do this.”

“We recognised we needed a very comprehensive and intensive engagement programme to capture the right information so the project could be fine-tuned to what the residents want”, he said.

“It gave us continual conversations with residents which is fantastic. We are only giving them information they want, and it means we have a two-way conversation.”

Bland added that “traditional methods of engagement and consultation are not defunct completely”, and said: “While using digital platforms and encouraging as many people as possible to use that, a number of people will be reached in the old traditional methods.

“It’s not a case of one size fits all, you have to adapt to get all the groups that you can.”

Ellis agreed that she did not see a totally digital future for consultation and said: “It doesn’t matter about what the technology is, the only way to reach hard-to-reach groups is to understand how to reach them.”

Toby Fox, 3Fox managing director, concluded the webinar and said: “It looks like digital consultation is here to stay, and you will be employing the platform and platforms in this way long into the future, irrespective of pandemics.”

The next The Voice of Authority webinar is at 11am on May 14, looking at how councils can help tackle construction challenges post Covid-19. Sign up here to join the event.