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Best Practice: Public Consultation Methods

Local government are fully aware of the benefits accruing from public consultation. Involving citizens in the planning process has a number of benefits and works to avoid conflict, after the fact. However, it is not always an easy thing to design or implement. Here we look at some examples of best practice in public consultation so we can examine exactly what does work.

Citizens Jury

A Citizens Jury is made up normally of between 12 to 40 randomly selected individuals who represent a microcosm of their community. These individuals meet over a number of days to deliberate on a policy decision, not unlike a regular jury.

Recently in South Australia, two-thirds of the 350 members of the S.Australian government initiated Citizens Jury, rejected the government's plan to import 138,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste and 390,000 cubic meters of intermediate level nuclear waste as a money making venture. The jury was a key plank of the government’s attempt to manufacture support for the dump plan but unfortunately, it refused to see any high commercial value to importing such waste. The SA government will now come under strong pressure to abandon the waste import plan in the wake of the citizen jury’s vote.

Citizens juries work well in this case because they create informed, active and engaged citizenry. They provide a platform where societal “goodness” can be viewed. The level of transparency between the government and the governed also adds more legitimacy to the process. These juries are better for focused questions about concrete issues. They should also be part of a wider public involvement strategy such as in the South Australian example. Finally, the development of the agenda should be overseen by an advisory board made up of key stakeholders.

Planning Cells

Planning Cells are similar to citizens juries in form and function, though they are more dispersed than single citizen juries. They are sponsored by local or national government bodies to help with the decision-making process. The name derives from the cells of about 25 participants where the discussions take place. Results are normally drafted into reports and presented to the sponsor, media sources and any other interested party.

The success of the planning cells is largely credited to their non-intimidating nature and the fact that participants represent normal citizens and not special interest groups. Decision makers are held more accountable through this process as they have to defend their positions. Public trust is often renewed through this process due to many results frequently being implemented.

Deliberative Polling

Deliberative Polling is an attempt to use public opinion research in a new and constructive way. A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach if people had an opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.

A deliberative poll was held in Omagh in January 2007 on Educational Policy in Northern Ireland. Making an adjustment to the education system was seen as essential due to the low pupil turnout and the Department of Education wanted to gather the views of parents. A deliberative poll was seen as the best method of gauging an informed opinion of the public due to large tensions in the area from religious differences. Omagh was deemed the best place to conduct the poll due to there being a good mix of Catholics and Protestants living in the area.

565 randomly selected parents were polled and then invited to Omagh College for a day of deliberation. 127 participants were given briefing materials on education policy. Parents engaged in small group discussions which were controlled by moderators, while at the same time a panel of experts answered their questions. Following the deliberative process, the parents were polled again to see how their opinions had changed.

The deliberative poll in Omagh defied expectations; no one was sure if parents would show up, or if their opinions would change. However, both communities showed their willingness to participate and took the deliberation process seriously. The fact that the parents’ opinions changed shows that they were open to re-appraising their own views on a sensitive issue area which reflects the divide between the two communities.In this instance, deliberative polling was a successful method of public consultation.

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