Consultation conference reflections: yesterday, today, tomorrow

Damian Greenfield

After presenting online at various conferences over the past couple of years, for the first time in three years, I headed down to London in October on two separate occasions to present in person at the Consultation Institute’s Connect Conference and the Waterfront Infrastructure, Consultation and Stakeholder Engagement Conference.

As well as sharing my experience and views on Cross Border Consultations at Scale and the Past, Present and Future of Public Consultations, I was also able to soak in contributions from public and private sector speakers, national infrastructure bodies, consultancies, and professional services providers, all of whom shared their views on the current challenges and future opportunities for major infrastructure projects.

Here are a few of my observations and thoughts to take away:


Post pandemic consultation

Whilst there is no doubt that the pandemic had a wide-ranging impact on society, many consultation and engagement improvements that had already started, were accelerated. It’s apparent that serious efforts have been made to improve engagement and public participation whilst maintaining the legitimacy that consultation and engagement imparts on major projects. This has been almost universally achieved through improvements in the way we utilise digital methods to connect with local communities.

Despite the success digital engagement has played in recent years, the majority of attendees at both conferences agreed that not only is it important to adopt a hybrid and tailored approach to consultation and engagement, but also that more work is needed to ensure that those who are digitally excluded can participate – online channels must only ever be part of the solution.

Delegates agreed that digital engagement is no longer a nice to have and whilst the pandemic helped legitimise digital engagement, it’s clear to see that it won’t ever fully replace in-person activity. Without in-person engagement, you will struggle to build meaningful relationships and rapport with your stakeholders in a humanised way.

Multiple case studies highlighted the impact Covid-19 had on the speed of decision making on Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, which resulted in some major projects experiencing significant delays, so its unsurprising that both conferences included the context of a new Government and the importance of speeding up major growth-related projects.

Questions were raised regarding proposed planning policy changes that could impact on how consultation and engagement obligations are delivered. Whilst there were a range of views on the nature and specifics of these changes, and what this could mean for the industry, the recurring affirmation was that  – despite potential changes to environmental and public consultation obligations within infrastructure planning policy, when significant change is being proposed, people and communities will still expect to have a say.

The importance of Social Value

With or without public consultation, communities today are more likely than ever to express their disapproval to proposals, meaning anyone can challenge a project. It’s for this reason that social value has become more prominent as a driving force in project development – it’s what attracts people, and what’s important to them. Creating projects that connects with communities requires a vision and purpose that can stimulate growth, create jobs and achieve local buy-in. People are moved to action when they feel strongly about something, and often the strongest actions are driven by opposition. The cost of objections and legal challenges can be extensive and tangible which is why you need – wherever possible – to examine every opportunity to incorporate social value in a way that brings communities on the journey with you.

Looking forward

Something that I sensed from both conferences is that, now the pandemic is behind us, there is a stronger appetite from people of all backgrounds to get involved when proposals really impact them, and as we develop and deliver engagement exercises, we need to think about hybrid formats as an enhanced approach to consultation and engagement rather than a quick win, a complement rather than a replacement of in person conversations.

But those who want to join the conversation and have their say won’t be clamouring for more online experiences, they will be desperate to re-engage face to face, with other human beings, just as I did at both conferences recently.

About the author

T47 Associate Damian Greenfield is an energetic, passionate, and inspiring public consultation professional with almost 20 years’ experience in effectively engaging people and communities as part of the decision-making process.

Damian supports organisations that aim to deliver change at pace, meet legal duties and regulatory requirements whilst maintaining the trust of the people they serve. From Nationally Significant Infrastructure Programmes to local and regional transformation proposals, Damian specialises in identifying, planning for, and managing the risks of conducting public consultations on potentially contentious proposals.

Before joining T47, Damian studied Public Relations and Marketing at Lincoln University and completed a Masters’ degree in Strategic Communications and International Public Relations at Leeds Beckett University. Within T47, Damian provides strategic and practical analysis of UK Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects and current affairs of interest to consultors and consultees.

Want to know more? Connect with Damian on LinkedIn