Mention “consultation” and most local government officers think questionnaires and public meetings. The type of public meeting that traditionally takes place is where the MP, Councillors, and town planner sit at the top table in front of rows of chairs in a community centre; they then tell the members of public who happen to turn up, what they are proposing. Then those attendees with the loudest voices shout questions and comments to the speakers and each other – this often ends up with personal insults being exchanged. I’ll leave for another time the question of whether the proposal ever changes as a result of a public meeting.
There are many more alternative techniques for consultations: flipcharts, maps, models, focus groups, citizen juries, films etc. The key is the overall strategy to a consultation, so that any one public meeting or event targets a particular part of the community and is conducted in a way that is attractive and accessible to them. You then have to have many different events and meetings and exercises, targeting all possible groups and so conducted in many different ways. Through this, you get the involvement of many more people and a much more representative sample of the community; you also enthuse and engage them all much more – this has a positive effect all of its own. And as long as it’s clear that their contributions matter and are acted upon, you engender ownership of the project in the community who will be affected. They are then much more likely to use it/look after it/get involved with it etc.
The recent debate about blogs and online discussion draws comparisons with the traditional public meeting. My point would be that, even if the “blog with comments” is a better form of public meeting, it is still only one format for debate: many formats are needed so that there is something appropriate for each group in society.