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Why online consultations are a gamechanger for community engagement

February 09, 2021

By Mark Johnston

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way local authorities engage with their communities. But are virtual planning consultations here to stay?

Meeting communities and stakeholders at public consultations is a vital part of the planning process. But given the restrictions on public gatherings as a result of COVID-19, developers and local authorities alike have had to respond quickly to this challenge to ensure planning projects stay on track.

When the first lockdown began, many of our clients were quick to take advantage of new guidance on virtual planning and were seeking a resilient approach to community and stakeholder engagement that could break down the barriers of social distancing, provide valuable feedback on planning proposals and progress approvals on significant infrastructure projects.

As our familiarity with online engagement tools increased, so did our understanding of how to maximise the benefits from virtual consultations and we raised our expectations of what consultation should look like in a post Covid future. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention and the pandemic has only heightened the need innovate and look for alternative means of achieving better results.

The tech market was quick to respond with various platforms that can facilitate an online event, but the real value comes from combining this with our team of subject matter experts who can help make a strategic case for your project using online tools, and advise on how to enhance your engagement strategies to obtain public opinion from a wider and more diverse audience than would normally respond to traditional consultation methods.

At the start of the pandemic, we worked closely with our clients to develop a cost-effective solution for delivering public consultations online: one that meets legislative requirements and enhances community engagement. Virtual Engage replicates the familiar consultation experience in a virtual environment using project display boards, live chat, video clips and orthographic 3D models. Using 360-degree photography you can even create custom environments of real-life venues from the local Town Hall to a local leisure centre.

Hosting your consultation online is the first step, but we have complemented this offering with a range of digital community outreach options to ensure you reach the right (and perhaps new) audiences to gain a broader perspective on how your proposal is viewed by the communities it serves.  We use data analytics and highly targeted social media advertising to get in front of hard-to-reach audiences and engage with local community groups and key influencers.

Attention is key.  We live in an age of advertising and information overload. If you are a regular user of social media, you’ll know that there is more information shared across your feeds in 24 hours than anyone can take in properly. Creating meaningful engagement starts with cutting through the noise. This can be achieved by carefully structuring your targeted advertising and directing traffic to a dedicated landing page which is designed to make the user journey as easy as possible while capturing valuable data and information – in a GDPR compliant manner.

Online consultations provide more people than ever before with the opportunity to understand and comment on your project using their computer, tablet, or mobile device. They can do so at their convenience and in the comfort of their own home, improving the quality and quantity of feedback captured. While we cannot underplay the importance of face-to-face communication, advances in technology have given a more human feel to the process from animated avatars to voiceovers and live chats, at a time when speed and convenience are determining factors for participation in consultations.

This innovative approach to digital outreach allows for fast and accurate understanding of the issues that are important to the stakeholders and communities that may be impacted by the proposals. Our technical experts analyse participant feedback, identify trends, and include web analytics with visitor traffic and demographics to demonstrate the value and integrity of the data, and add context to appropriately framed planning arguments.

It is the opportunity to get to the heart of the community and hear voices that otherwise would not be heard that we believe means that the virtual consultation environment is here to stay. Even when public gatherings become possible again, planning managers will continue to run online consultations either in addition to, or instead of, the traditional village hall forum.

For more information or to arrange a demo of Virtual Engage email virtualengage@stantec.com

  • Mark Johnston

    Mark works on the delivery and development of planning and multi-disciplinary services, especially for the planning and delivery of large-scale residential and commercial developments.

    Contact Mark
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