Not Another Zoom (other platforms are available)! Welcome to the new normal of public consultation

Jonathan Bradley - Engagement Specialist and Head of Practice Development, Bang the Table (UK)

So it seems the Covid19 crisis is here to stay, in some shape or another. And now that many of us are starting to come out of the initial shock and morbid amazement we are starting to think about “getting on with it” and carrying on as best we can. The conversation is switching from lockdown to exit strategy and taking small steps back to normality. Public consultation and community engagement is going to be an integral part of this “getting back to normal” daily life, playing its part in planning decisions, housing developments, infrastructure projects, local government statutory consultation and changes to health and social care services

So as a profession, therefore,  now is the time that we too must think about the new normal and what it looks like for us. Already, some of this is becoming clear and specifically the fast transition by many people from face-to-face participation to online techniques - especially Zoom. But, first things first! Zoom is not best practice online patient and public involvement just like relying only on doing public meetings has never been the best way to do good public consultation! It is just one method in our toolkit. Early adopters and seasoned practitioners of online methods of participation already know this and they are in demand. Many others are scrambling to find alternatives to how they used to do things and are just jumping on a video conference as a sticking plaster. Well as it happens a range of things like public exhibitions, planning charrettes, community roadshows, focus groups, stakeholder workshops, public meetings, surveys, discovery interviews, citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries, Samoan circles (what? I hear you shout), stakeholder workshops, world cafe events and there’s more can all be done online. So now is the time to get clever when it comes to patient and public participation and online dialogue methods

What Kinds of Things Will People Want to Talk About?

Before diving into how though, we should stop to think about what. The world has just gone through an almost literal sci-fi movie experience. People are shocked, worried and uncertain about the future. It is going to be quite difficult to jump right in and expect them to share their views and opinions on changes to local library services, for example. First of all, local government is going to need to start having conversations about coming out of the Corona Crisis, reflecting on what it has meant for local people and going through a hyperlocal catharsis (most probably online). Some have started doing this already like Chester and Cheshire West Council’s Inspire Now online project and there are many other examples like this from around the world. After this it will need to be back to business as usual, asking people to comment on plans for town centres, changes to local health services, planning applications for new housing, and their views on major infrastructure projects in the pipeline. Now is the time to think about how this will happen?

How will these conversations take place?

Thankfully, before Covid19 many organisations had already begun to take a digital first approach to public consultation. So we already have lots of examples and case studies to draw from. What do they tell us? Well they tell us that good online public consultation is much much more than a Zoom meeting (other platforms are available).  They tell us that good online public consultation does two things

  • It provides a range of methods to take part, like online discussion forums, storytelling, mapping tools, question and answer tools, graffiti walls, blogs, opinion polls as well as online surveys
  • It offers a suite of information and support, like document libraries, video, podcasts, details of who is listening, key dates, FAQs and lots more. So that people can give proposals intelligent consideration.  

As we transition to the new normal best practice and public expectations will dictate that local government offers these types of “safe places for online dialogue” and not just a mediocre replication of a shouty public meeting in the form of an online webinar. We’ve already been campaigning for #NotAnotherSurvey to beat consultation fatigue, well soon we may be talking about #NotAnotherZoom!  

Will this last forever?

You’ve probably been talking to friends and relatives about their lockdown experience and I bet many of them have enjoyed some aspects of it.  We’ve all learned that we can socialise online and we can have work meetings online. Many people previously reluctant to take these steps are now rich advocates of online working and hanging out online.  Well, public consultation will not be immune to this change in mindset. People will be asking some searching questions of any local authorities who try to go back to the old ways. They will be demanding that more public consultation takes place online, digital first,  and they will be their own experts in what works and what doesn’t. So this will probably last forever to a great extent. Yes, we will meet again, but probably when we really need to and in second place to online consultation techniques.

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