Digital and analogue methods to consider

The current COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it brings are changing the way we all live, and it presents a unique set of circumstances for engagement and consultation. We know that the use of any form of face-to-face contact or gatherings is dangerously irresponsible at this time and goes against any guidance.

The immediate response could be to adopt a ‘digital by default’ approach, perhaps falling back on online surveys, promoting responses through websites, email and social media. However, it is important that wholly relying on online approaches is likely to exclude a very significant proportion of the population. It is also worth noting that the courts do not look favourably on the over-reliance on online only consultation (Kendal v Rochford District Council).

There are, however, a number of ways in which may allow a more balanced approach to engagement and consultation in a period of ‘no-touch’ engagement.’ One way of classifying these methods is their function as communications channels:

  • One way (simplex): only sending communications in one direction; and
  • Both way (duplex): communicating in both directions.

One way communication methods are perhaps the least conducive to good practice, they do little to promote a continuous dialogue when there are no ‘contact’ events to respond to or allow challenge. These mechanisms are either ‘broadcast’ such as webcasts/live streaming or blogs or ‘receiver’ such as online surveys. However, there are ways in which, with some planning, these can be made more interactive, for instance using platforms to provide realtime audience participation through tablets, mobile phones or laptops during live streaming. The practical use of social media can also provide useful participant feedback such of the use of a dedicated hashtag (#) or account (@) on Twitter.

Both way communications allow for more continuous dialogue providing opportunities for consultor and consultee to explore the issues and reveal potential solutions previously unthought of. Examples of these types of mechanisms include web conferences and webinars where multiple participants can contribute in a deliberative fashion to develop the understanding around the specific issues being discussed. It is possible to conduct one-to-one interviews, small discussion groups and large events through these media.

There are also a number of providers who provide all these services in a fully supported single package such as Harvest Digital Planning, Bang The Table, ConsultOnline, Darzin and Tractivity.

These solution are heavily reliant on the assumption that everyone is online and willing to participate in digital discussions, which is not the case. It is important not to overlook the pre World Wide Web solutions, most notably the telephone. Many organisation have access to telephone conferencing solutions which would allow small group discussions of the issues and solutions. Equally, one-to-one discussions with key stakeholders via telephone interviews is a valuable source of contribution to the dialogue.

In a practical setting, the development of proposals or appraising options without face-to-face contact is very challenging and without having the right people in the room presents significant weakness for consultors. By combining either a telephone or web conference with stakeholders and a postal/email prioritisation exercise it would be possible to have a near deliberative approach while maintaining social distancing.

Of course, this still leaves the thorny issue of ensuring the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and digitally disconnected citizens can participate fairly in the current ‘no-touch engagement’ environment. This is a topic for further consideration outside this think-piece, but all thoughts are welcome.

‘Virtual Town Hall’s or ‘Tele Town Halls’ are also one option to reach the digitally excluded. These methods are a form of tele-conferencing, and are tailored to facilitate two way discussion and have robust data gathering and polling capabilities. As well, with participant consent, Virtual Town Halls can be run in a ‘call-out’ mode which do not require participants to have any software or numbers to call into. Converso.co here in the UK is a provider of this service. 

In the meantime, while the Consultation Institute makes no recommendations, here are some tools you may wish to consider:

Blogs:

Chat/Forums:

Audience Participation:

Web Conferencing:

Webinars:

Telephone Conferencing:

Full Service Online Engagement and Consultation Platforms:

Last updated byAnonymous on October 30, 2020
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