Managing Public Consultation Events

See also: Speaking at Public Consultation Meetings.

More and more organisations now need to consult publicly on any changes to the local area, or to service provision.

Companies that are major employers in a particular area may also wish to consult local residents before changing location and/or activities.

Being able to organise and run an effective public consultation meeting is therefore becoming more important.

This page gives some ideas about what you might need to do.

Running a Public Consultation Meeting

There are a number of aspects to planning and organising public consultation meetings that you need to take into account.

These include:

1. The Timing

The timing of public consultation meetings is very important. Get it wrong, and you will be accused of trying to hide things and prevent people attending. It is therefore vital that you consider who might want to attend, and what time would be most convenient for them.

For example:

  • Do you mostly want people from other organisations to attend? If so, during the day is ideal, as they will do it as part of their work.
  • Are those interested likely to be members of the community in their private capacity? If so, you might need to hold the meeting in the evening.

2. The Venue

Again, the attendees are key to the decision. The venue needs to be big enough to hold everyone likely to attend, and somewhere convenient for attendees. It also needs not to be expensive if the consultation is at public expense as this is likely to be heavily criticised. You should also consider whether car parking is available and, if not, where you suggest that people park.

3. A Chair and/or Neutral Facilitator

Especially if the subject is likely to be controversial, it’s a good idea to have a neutral facilitator present with plenty of experience in running large meetings and events.

Examples of good people to choose include a local councillor either from your local council or a neighbouring area, a journalist, or a consultant with experience of running public consultation meetings.

You will have to pay the chair, so make sure that you can afford and justify the fees.

It’s a good idea to brief the chair well in advance about the likely issues to be raised and who will be able to answer particular points. It’s also helpful to agree the general approach, whether that’s being in ‘listening mode’ or trying to respond to concerns.

4. Attendees from the Organisation(s) Involved

As when you are setting up a press conference, you need to give some thought to who should attend from the organisations involved, and what their role should be.

For example:

  • Who should present your initial proposals?
  • Does anyone else need to make a presentation about the detail of any of the proposals?
  • Do you plan to run a question and answer session? If so, what expertise do you need on the panel?

You also need to make sure that your attendees are adequately prepared. If you are proposing to run a question and answer session, do some practising, especially if there may be hostile questioning. For more about this, see our pages on Managing a Press Conference and Crisis Communications.

You should also make sure that presenters are comfortable with their role, especially if they may not be used to presenting formally.

5. The Agenda

You need to decide on a running order and a duration. If the event is more than about two hours long, you may also need to build in coffee and comfort breaks to avoid people leaving.

It’s a good idea to agree the agenda with the neutral chair, as he or she may well have a contribution to make that would help with the running of the event.

At a public consultation event, you will want to have some means of gathering audience views, whether that is via a question and answer session, or simply inviting people to make comments, which will be taken into account. You need to agree in advance how you will handle that, and whether you will try to reply to any questions immediately, or simply note them all down for consideration. You should agree this with your panel, and with the independent chair, and also tell the audience on the day so that they know what to expect.

6. The Audience

You need to decide whether your audience is to be invitation-only, or whether they can just turn up on the day. If you want to consult mostly organisations, then invitation-only will be best. You do, however, need to be aware that this has the potential to seem elitist and exclude some of the people with the strongest concerns. It is, therefore, only appropriate in certain circumstances, such as when you are considering the technical details of a proposal or where you want input from particular groups and not from individuals.

When inviting organisations to send representatives, you may want to suggest how many they should send, and explain that there are space constraints. You also need to give organisations enough time to invite the appropriate representatives.

If you’re allowing people to turn up on the day, you need to consider how you will publicise the event. Posters at the affected organisation(s) is a good option, and so is local radio. You may also place advertisements in local newspapers, use your own and others’ websites, and invite local special interest groups to publicise it to their members.

You should also consider whether you want to register your audience in some way so that you know who has attended. If so, what information do you need, and how will you gather it? You might, for example, ask everyone to sign an attendance sheet on the way in, giving name, address, and interest in the subject. If so, make sure that you have plenty of sheets so that it doesn’t cause a delay.

You also need to consider whether you want to make any special arrangements for any particular audience members.

For example, if you are consulting about services that will affect disabled people in particular, you should make arrangements that will enable wheelchair users to attend easily. If you are consulting on services for mothers with young children, do you need to provide crèche facilities?

7. A Note-Taker

You will need a record of the day, including all the issues and questions raised. You could use a stenographer, an audio recording of the meeting, or you could use a note-taker. It really depends how full you need the record to be, which is a decision to make with those in charge.

If you have a human note-taker, you may be able to provide some immediate feedback on the issues raised. A reasonably competent person should be able to record all the questions as they are asked, and then group them broadly by topic, within around half an hour of the session end. If you have an extended coffee break, or a lunch break, therefore, you should be able to feed back on the key issues raised after that, and ensure that your audience knows that you have heard their concerns.

8. Sound System and Other Equipment

If you are going to have a formal presentation, you need to have high quality equipment. This may be provided, especially if you are using a conference venue, but if you are just using a room in a public building, it may not be very high quality. If you are having a question and answer session, everyone has to be audible, which means that they all need microphones.

You may want to hire a professional sound system, and someone to run it for you.

9. Catering

Whether or not you need to provide any catering depends on the length of the meeting, and also its timing.

Catering is expensive, and has therefore fallen out of fashion at public sector events. However, if you’re asking people to be present for more than about two hours, at the very least you need to provide a drink. If you’re asking them to be there all day, it’s not unreasonable to provide lunch.

10. Seating Arrangements

You may need to consider:

  • Where you will seat your presenters and panel, both during their session, and the rest of the time. They may not want to sit on the stage during presentations. You also need to decide if they need to remain for the whole meeting, or if they can leave after their slot.
  • How many audience seats you need to provide, and where they should be placed in the room. It’s also worth having a stock of spare chairs should more people turn up than expected.

11. After the Event

You will need some way of feeding back after the event. Some public consultations are constrained by regulatory requirements, but others may be entirely open. It is helpful to tell the audience what is going to happen next, and what they can expect from the process. Otherwise, you may find yourself fielding queries for the next six months about when anyone can expect to hear about progress, and this is going to seriously affect your chances of getting any other work done.

A Final Word

This page is really only a quick guide to some of the areas that you should consider if you need to set up a public consultation event.

The most important aspect of all is probably to remember that this is all about members of the public. They wish to contribute, and you need to consider how they can best do that. The arrangements should fall out of that and, if you take that as your starting point, you are likely to have considerably more success.