Towards the start of lockdown, Redwood’s Khevyn Limbajee penned a blog on the future of consultation practices and how consultation experts were adapting to the reliance on digital technology. Although the country is slowly emerging out of lockdown, the way in which consultation takes place continues to rely on digital methods – and Redwood Consulting has embraced this change. More than this, learnings from the age of digital consultation will be learns for the future, as benefits such as a wider reach, greater accessibility and longer periods of engagement continue to be used in consultations to come.

Following the launch of several online consultations across the country, Natasha Lee sets out our top ten tips for running a successful period of digital engagement:

  1. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach

A statement as true in life as it is with consultation. Every project, and every client – even before digital started to become part of the ‘new norm’ – requires a different approach. Different audiences, different local issues and differing demographics will determine the strategy for consultation. Do your research, immerse yourself in the requirements for an individual site and base your approach around that.

  1. Clear language is a must

When consultation was allowed to take place face-to-face, conversations between the project team and members of the public was limitless. Terminology could be explained, plans talked through in detail, and the areas which could have caused confusion clarified. This is nigh on impossible with a digital consultation, and so engagement platforms need to use simple, friendly language with an inviting tone of voice and, most importantly, be user friendly to all demographics.

  1. Not everyone is tech-friendly

It is arguable that even the most tech savvy individual will have needed to adjust to new ways of working with an increased reliance on technology. Imagine how daunting this is for someone who is not comfortable with the internet, doesn’t have a smart phone, and with no one in the room to ask questions to. It is therefore critical to ensure that there are a number of ways in which people can contact the team – phone numbers, verbal feedback facilities, email and post all need to be utilised. Being accessible to all still remains one of the key touch stones of a successful consultation.

  1. Interaction remains important

Interpreting plans from the internet rarely fosters a sense of excitement, so using interactive methodologies on platforms will help bring the information being communicated to life. Fly-throughs, voiceovers and narrated presentations will add a human element to proposals and help the audience to understand benefits that proposals will bring – and from an individual, not just technology.  Interactive imagery and fly throughs help to bring a proposal to life, especially on screen.

  1. Make opinion sharing enjoyable

There is limited scope for healthy debate when the only person you can converse with is your computer. So, feedback mechanisms need to be enjoyable to encourage a high level of responses, with plenty of opportunities to click through and access the feedback options available. Interactive features here can also help to encourage participation, ultimately leading to a wider spread of feedback to support a planning application.

  1. Learn from others

We learn in our jobs daily, and knowledge sharing between consultants and associates is even more important when working towards the delivery of something that is new for many. Talk to others involved – be it the architects or Local Authority communications teams – to navigate the process and understand what will work for different audiences.

  1. Utilise meeting and webinar functions

Webinars are now almost a daily occurrence, and the majority of online users will be familiar with these. In the same way that ‘traditional’ meetings and question and answer sessions formed a key part of pre-application consultation, this remains true during this digital era, albeit on a different platform. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts are easy to use applications that offer a platform for presentations and discussion, and a chance for a different kind of face-to-face activity. Relationships can be built this way, and trust with key stakeholders established from the outset.

  1. Be adaptable

As Government guidelines and social isolation rules begin to change, it is important to remain adaptable in your approach. At the right time, some groups may want to meet, so allow for this flexibility in your approach. Tools that some clients may have previously shied away from, such as the use of social media, are an increasingly important tool for advertising and encouraging debate. It is arguable that social media and other digital platforms are now the go to for information, as local papers become surpassed by digital in lockdown.

  1. Leave yourself plenty of time

Digital consultations take time to set up. Without the luxury of sitting together as a project team to go through copy, or brainstorm feedback questions, it can take longer to agree on core materials. Building a website is an additional time-consuming task, so allow plenty of time to work through this as a collective.

  1. Enjoy it!

Digital consultation doesn’t need to be stressful. Yes, it is a new way of working, and it takes time to bring the communities with us as we all adapt to this. Try to enjoy it – it is highly likely that elements of this will be utilised into the future, so embrace it, learn, and lets all make it work together.

To summarise, digital consultation is a new way of consulting that we will all need to adapt to using in the future. As technology continues to improve, and people spend more time at home with virtual meetings that become easier to navigate, at Redwood we are working hard to create new functionalities that allow us to continue to support the needs of our clients. So if you have any queries about engagement, big or small, contact us to find out more – and together we can lead the way into the future.