Organisations of all types need to engage with their ‘customers’ or ‘clients’ or whatever term they use for the people who comprise their target audience. Private sector organisations that don’t engage with, and act on, the insight they gain from customers are destined to go out of business.
Consultation is Mandatory
For Irish public sector organisations, state agencies and to some extent those in the community and voluntary sector, however, the picture is a bit different. The requirement to engage in ‘consultation’ with stakeholders at all stages of planning and policy-making is mandatory. Consultations can be done in a number of ways but, in practice, these organisations tend to first identify stakeholders, i.e. organisations whose activities are relevant to the particular plan or policy in question and then solicit input from these organisations. Interviews, surveys and focus groups with representatives of these organisations will often be the biggest source of insight. In turn the input obtained can heavily influence what action is taken. One key element of the consultation process that is sometimes ignored, or approached half-heartedly, is direct engagement with citizens.
Pitfalls of Consultations
Even when an effort at direct engagement with citizens is included in the mix it may not be effective. In some cases, organisations put out a call for ‘submissions’ from members of the public. This can be off-putting for many people who don’t have confidence in their ability to write a formal letter. Another approach is to invite members of the community to attend a public meeting and give their views. Many people, understandably, don’t feel comfortable speaking at such a public gathering and are therefore reluctant to attend despite perhaps having strong views on a particular issue. These meetings can also result in a minority position, espoused vociferously, being adopted while the majority stay silent.
In short, current manifestations of the ‘consultation’ process don’t work for many. This can lead to resentment and a feeling among lots of people in the community that their views are not being listened to. There is another method which, though by no means perfect, can go a long way to make people feel more involved in the consultation process and that their views are not only being sought, but listened to. This method is the Community Survey.
Community surveys offer a very cost-effective method of obtaining input from the members of that community and, by promoting it well, letting them know that their input is being requested. If done correctly, the client organisation will almost certainly obtain input from more people than before and in this way even those who don’t respond will know they were invited to do so. The key things to remember are to have an online version of the survey AND an offline version that can be made easily available to those who are not online. Happily, this number is decreasing every year.
For your next public consultation, consider doing a Community Survey. They’re very effective, easy to analyse and there are a number of online survey tools you can use. As with any survey the key to success is good questionnaire design. We can help with that so please get in touch.