Challenges related to public consultation impact organizations from many industries including resource extraction and infrastructure development.
Merely embarking on a community consultation initiative doesn’t mean an organization will receive the participation and feedback outcomes they hoped for.
Public consultation factors
Three major factors at play in public consultation are:
- Legal requirements to consult with all the groups that are potentially impacted by their projects.
- The need to reduce project risk, resistance and costly delays potentially caused by poorly executed or documented consultations.
- The need to demonstrate that the issues, interests and concerns of impacted stakeholders are taken into account in project studies.
One practice that will improve the outcomes of a consultation initiative is to take time to develop the right set of questions. Taking differing views into account, and questioning assumptions creates an evaluation process (and eventual set of findings) that will be regarded as credible by the public.
Being asked to participate in a consultation but not believing that your input will make any difference to the outcome is a serious hazard to a successful inquiry. If the intention is not genuine, people can sense it. Effective stakeholder engagement is more than a check box as all parties must value it.
When developing a set of questions, seek to reflect the perspectives and interests of the stakeholder groups affected but the project. It can be especially beneficial to have your stakeholder groups’ involvement in the development of the stakeholder consultation questionnaire.
Asking good questions and using culturally appropriate methods & language will generate more useful feedback, and help establish stronger credibility with stakeholders and rights-holders.
Develop good questions
Three tips for developing good questions:
- Keep language simple and direct. Provide all the details about the project, and make sure industry jargon is kept at a minimum and all terminology is clearly stated and easy to understand. Talk with people in a way that makes them comfortable and is culturally appropriate. Ask direct questions, and avoid being vague. If you don’t explain what you’re talking about, you risk stakeholders becoming frustrated or misunderstanding the intent of the inquiry.
- Focus on one idea at a time. Asking questions about multiple ideas, issues, or topics in a single stakeholder consultation questionnaire makes them all harder to answer, potentially muddying your results. Each point should have it’s own question – this will make feedback easier to understand and also to summarize.
- Make sure questions aren’t creating a bias towards one answer. You can influence the answers you will get if language and tone are not objective. Avoid inserting opinions into the questions, and if this is unavoidable to a certain degree then frame some of the questions in a positive way and some in a negative way to create balance.
If the tone of your survey is balanced it will help generate feedback that reflects people’s actual attitudes. Most importantly, the outcomes generated will help establish where problems lie, making it easier to develop the solutions required to help lead to a successful outcome.
Companies and governments are finding the need to “walk the talk” in order to earn a social license to operate. One of the most important ways to do this is to ask the right questions, thereby demonstrating that your organization has seriously considered all stakeholder interests, issues and concerns in your project studies.