In times of Covid-19, we have become used to engaging and interacting increasingly online via various internet platforms and social media. Indeed, this has also been the case for public consultations on built environment projects, many of which have continued online while social distancing was in place.
There have been many positive outcomes from this shift towards online engagement, such as the greater reach of consultation activities and often a better or more balanced response. However, interacting through platforms also risks losing a personal touch that can come from one to one encounters, and potentially forget that the people on the ‘other side of the fence’ whether from the design team or local residents are also just people.
In most development projects, online public meetings for consultation are still a somewhat underexplored area. There is a perception of risk if the meeting gets out of hand. Meetings on video calling platforms can add a valuable component to any public consultation meetings programme, even for smaller sites, as they offer the opportunity to answer key questions and discuss design decisions that are key to local stakeholders just as they can serve to explain key aspects of the engagement programme, such as the history of the project, or future project stages.
The benefits of a public or face-to-face meeting are generally in the open and direct dialogue. And the good news is that naturally online video tools lend themselves to group discussions.
Nine tips for your next online consultation meeting
Based on experience with a number of online consultation meetings and workshops we supported or held over the years, here we provide some of the key lessons learned and best practices to help you prepare. With those points in hand, you can rest assured to be best prepared for your next online consultation meeting.
Select a tool that has low technical barriers
When it comes to video conferencing tools, some platforms, such as Zoom, are better known than others, but even Zoom tends to be an office communications tool, and it cannot be expected that all of the audience know how to use it.
Be aware that some tools, such as Zoom, require an application to be downloaded or require a registration, which can be a significant barrier for some sections of the audience.
Some platforms such as Whereby.com work within the browser and can in some instances lower the barriers to participation, but lack advanced functionalities such as breakout rooms.
Get to know your audience
Consider opting for a registration page for your event so that you can learn about participants in advance to the consultation meeting or share joining instructions in advance.
The Zoom platform, for instance, offers a registration page for participants, where participants can be asked a few additional questions at sign up.
- The type of respondent: Are they a local resident, politician, and so on…
- Do they have a burning question going into the meeting?
- Do they have any particular concerns?
Use the online consultation meeting as part of a process
Online consultation meetings are best planned as part of a wider consultation process. For instance, arranging a period of consultation on a dedicated consultation tool and having this start in advance to the meeting ensures that many in the audience have already had an opportunity to explore the plans and leave you some feedback ready to pick up on for the meeting.
Explain the tool’s functionalities at the beginning of the meeting
At the beginning of each meeting, assume that there will be participants who know nothing about the respective video conferencing platform you use.
Plan to have a slide or visual to explain how the platform works. Give it plenty of time to explain to participants how the meeting works and how questions and comments can be made. How do you comment, how do you indicate you want to speak?
Plan your ideal schedule and timings
In advance to the meeting, plan out a schedule that provides sufficient time to explain the project basics and prepares for a discussion. After all, both sides are here to learn, so best not to pretend that you know everything. However, be clear on the aspects where feedback can have an influence and is needed.
Plan in time for discussion. The balance should be 50/50 at the very least in order for the meeting to provide useful insights.
Plan talking points with discussion prompts based on the project at hand and invite feedback on matters relevant to the project.
Give the opportunity to introduce how you will engage
Is this event part of a wider engagement programme? Are there any dedicated other feedback methods in place that you want to point participants to? If so, make it clear in the meeting and provide the links to those locations on a single slide. If there is another feedback stage, this helps to take pressure off the meeting.
Run your meeting in a team
Introduce the team at the beginning of the meeting. Ideally from a previous consultation stage, contribute some questions that participants are already likely to ask or would like to discuss.
Appoint somebody on the team as the moderator or facilitator, and have another person to monitor, for instance, any chat that’s running concurrent to the meeting or provide assistance to participants, who struggle with joining the meeting. Generally speaking an online public meeting needs at least two people leading the meeting.
Consider a dedicated interactive tool to visualise plans and record notes
In the consultation meeting, expect that queries and discussions can cover very general concerns such as potential future traffic issues or the expected tenure and mix of housing, down to very detailed specifics, that are of concern to a few individuals in particular, such as road access points near a direct neighbour’s houses.
It helps to have a moderator capture notes in an interactive tool.
Tools such as Miro are great to capture comments and ideas at an earlier project stage, where spatial plans are not yet formed. Master planning tools such as PlaceChangers master planning platform are great to flag up additional information specific on site as well as capturing notes directly on the emerging site plans from and with participants.
Plan for follow-up
The online consultation meeting is often only part of a wider engagement programme. Have a location in place where you can direct participants after the meeting for leaving further suggestions and to keep up to date with project updates.
Directing participants to a dedicated consultation tool is a great way to solicit further interaction and insights, while also communicating that you are there to listen.
Your next online consultation meeting
Arranging a public consultation meeting as a Zoom call is not too hard to do, and it pays dividends in terms of an additional more personal perspective to suggestions received via other means, including dedicated consultation tools, emails, or social media messages.
Online consultation meetings can be very valuable to provide additional significance to particular issues faced by local people and also help appreciate context to issues raised that would otherwise be harder to appreciate.
Use an online consultation meeting on Zoom or the like as an addition to your regular online engagement activities. Ideally have a dedicated forum or project website in place which you can direct participants to in advance and also in follow-up to the online consultation meeting.
Do you have any additional experiences or tips to add to this list, let us know by emailing me on [email protected] placechangers.co.uk.
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