Online engagement could be key to preventing project delays

As the lockdown sends the economy tanking, it’s hard to find many rays of hope, but one is the way a crisis can accelerate innovation.

Many planning consultations have had a ‘virtual’ element for some time now as developers look for cost-effective ways to get public feedback that can help to smooth the passage of their schemes.

Driven from the top by the NSIPs (Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects) regime, which placed meaningful consultation at the heart of the development process, engagement strategies that used to be seen as ‘best practice’ have started to become the norm.

Freshwater’s sister company, Waterfront, has organised the UK’s annual Consultation and Stakeholder Engagement for Infrastructure conference since 2013. It’s an event that explores the latest techniques employed by developers to deliver effective consultations, with the role played by digital channels such as social media becoming a more prominent theme in recent years.

With the arrival of coronavirus, however, online engagement has been thrust from being part of the mix to being central to it, as project promoters and planning authorities grapple with the lockdown restrictions and how to get things back on track when the UK’s ‘exit strategy’ kicks in.

It’s clear that, while face-to-face engagement might become possible for some groups within months, certain target audiences could be subject to restrictions for much longer.

So, this gives responsible developers two choices: go fully digital or delay the project. For project promoters with experience of running online consultations this may be a no-brainer. For those who haven’t, the investment in advice and systems is likely to be a much more palatable option than delaying an important investment indefinitely.

One of the key things to remember when planning an online-led engagement programme, is that the underlying principles driving the approach remain the same. Are you engaging with the right audiences? Are you giving people the right information? Are you providing an adequate platform for effective two-way dialogue? And are you giving sufficient consideration to the feedback you receive from consultation audiences?

Depending on the nature of the scheme, online consultations can generate far more responses than conventional methods but it is important for promoters to demonstrate quality, as well as quantity.

Critics of online engagement often cite the risk of disenfranchising less digitally-savvy groups. But recent Ofcom research found that 89% of all Welsh adults use the internet regularly, and that figure is likely to have increased as a result of the lockdown.

For those still without internet access, offline channels, such as hard copy mailings and telephone surveys, can be used without breaking the COVID crisis restrictions.

But for other hard-to-reach groups – such as families with young children, people with long commutes and the disabled – an investment in online consultation can provide an alternative, accessible means of engagement.

However, relying on traffic to local websites and social media posts is unlikely to deliver the engagement required. Online programmes should feature some element of paid-for promotion, which on some digital channels can also be highly targeted to specific localities and demographics.

Choosing the best tools for delivering an online consultation can be challenging and, in most cases, a project promoter will need to use a combination of methods to run an effective engagement programme.

This could include a consultation website; video conferencing or webinars for presentations to larger groups; telephone hotlines, chatrooms and LiveChat facilities. Most developers will also need to enhance their approach to social media.

One area that technology has proved effective is in the communication of complex scheme proposals. Interactive, 3D fly-throughs and graphics bring planning proposals to life. And research data can be presented in accessible ways for non-technical audiences.

The always-on nature of online platforms allows consultees to browse and ask questions or give feedback at a time that suits them. This means an online consultation usually produces an increase in the volume of responses but, if it is designed in the right way, an online system can be more efficient in the processing and analysis of data.

Not only is this important in informing a developer’s decision-making, it can also be essential in demonstrating to planning authorities that a consultation has been carried out thoroughly.

We don’t know yet when life will return to normal or even what the new normal will look like, but it’s important that project promoters are mindful of the way in which the COVID crisis has heightened interest in decision-making by public bodies.

Planning authorities and politicians are likely to come under increasing pressure to take account of the concerns of all stakeholders when considering proposals.

Developers need to make this easy for them. Investment in online consultations could help to make the recovery curve rise fast and high.

Waterfront’s ‘Conducting Digital Consultation and Engagement – what technologies and techniques can be used?’ was hosted on Tuesday 21 April.  You can view the webinar online.

This article was written by our Chief Executive, Angharad Neagle, and appeared in the Western Mail newspaper on 27 April 2020.