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Guiding the consultative process


This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July.  For details email Bob Dick

...  in which are described a number of processes for giving, getting and exchanging information especially in community settings as part of public consultation activities




Please note: This is a chapter (slightly modified) from a resource document 1 written for people on local committees as part of a consultative process.  The committees were given the task of helping to channel information between a design authority and local communities.  I have left the text much as it was.  So it will help if you keep in mind that it was written for local committees directly involved in public consultation.


When the local committees are formed, your task as members is to respond to emerging issues.  You do so by involving the "stakeholders" in a consultative process.  A stakeholder is anyone likely to be affected by an issue, or by how it is approached; that is, as the name implies, someone who holds a "stake" in an issue.

This document describes the types of consultation required by different issues.  It sets out some general guidelines for identifying and involving stakeholders.

Initially, you may expect an upsurge of activity as people take the opportunity to voice their opinions.  When this initial activity has settled down, you can probably anticipate that most issues will arise in one of two ways...

  • The design authority will indicate to you that certain designs are being considered.  It may also indicate the design options currently under consideration
  • A concerned local citizen, or group of citizens, will raise an issue.

There may also be other people or bodies who might occasionally trigger a need for consultation, either through the design authority or directly.  No matter how the issue is raised, it will be your role to guide the consultative process to deal with it.


Guiding the consultative process

Your task in guiding the consultative process can be described as that of finding the answers to a number of important questions.  In the order in which they are considered, they are...

  • What is the issue? 
  • What is the purpose of the consultative process? 
  • Who are the stakeholders? 
  • What process can be used?

In more detail...


What is the issue?

At this initial point you do not need a precise definition of the issue.  That emerges more fully from the consultative process.

Unless you sufficiently understand what the issue is, however, the stakeholders may be hard to identify.  You need to know enough about the issue so that you can work out who is likely to be effected.  (You may change you mind about your answer to this question later; that is often to be expected.)


What is the purpose of the consultative process?

That is, what outcomes are required?  Some types of issue primarily require information to be channelled from community to design authority, others from design authority to community.  Others require both.

In some instances, the process is intended to provide people with an opportunity to understand a point of view not previously considered, and perhaps even to arrive at some collective appreciation of the alternatives.  (This is taken up further below.)

In brief, you need to be clear about the primary purpose of the consultation.  You can then select the most appropriate and efficient method.


Who are the stakeholders?

Who are the people who are affected in any way by the issue as it is, or by the options for dealing with it, or by the way the options are implemented?  These are the people whom you involve in the consultative process.

(There is a separate document on stakeholder analysis, for addressing this issue.)


What process can be used to involve the
stakeholders and achieve the purpose?

The answer to this question has to take into account both the stakeholders, and the type of issue.  At this step, you choose or design a consultative process which will secure the widest possible involvement of the stakeholders, and achieve the purpose of informing community, or design authority, or both.

Some types of processes for dealing with different types of issues and different numbers of stakeholders are described later.

The consultative committee may not always be the most appropriate body to deal with such issues.


Temporary local working parties

Where the issue is localised, there may be some advantage in setting up a working party composed of people who have a direct stake in it.  This can be a small and temporary working party with a clear brief.  When the issue is resolved, the working party dissolves.

It is usually important for a member of your committee to be on the temporary working party.  This ensures that the committee is kept informed of developments.  I recommend, however, that you do not become involved in the discussion of the working party unless you are also a stakeholder in the issue.

The use of temporary working parties serves the purpose of spreading involvement in and ownership of the consultative process more widely.  In addition, it frees up your committee for wider issues.  It also acts as a training ground for people who may later become members of the consultative committee.


Types of issue

In deciding the process to be used, it is helpful to think of an issue as falling primarily into one or another of four categories...

Information to the community

Those where information is to be conveyed to the community or some group of stakeholders within it: that is, disseminating information.

For example, the design authority might wish to notify the community about the timetable for acting on decisions already taken.  Or the community may wish to know what the long-term plans of the design authority are.

Information from the community

Those where the primary task is to gather information from the community or some group of stakeholders within it: that is, collecting information.

For example, the design authority might wish to know the issues which the community regards as of the highest priority.  Or the community may wish to bring some attitude to the notice of the design authority.

Information exchange

Those where there is to be an exchange of information between design authority and community, or between two other groups of stakeholders: that is, exchanging information.

This may arise often.  For example, the design authority might advise the community of some design options, and seek a response.  Or the community might raise an issue, and require a reply from the design authority.

Developing agreement

Those where it is hoped that an exchange of information may lead to agreement which did not previously exist, or where some change of attitude or position may result: that is, resolving differences.

For example, different groups of stakeholders might each prefer an option which disadvantaged the other group.  Or, through misunderstanding or mistrust, the design authority and community activists might misunderstand each others' motives.


Of these, exchanging information and developing agreement will usually be the most valuable and appropriate.  There will be occasions, however, when a one-way information flow is all that is required.  This will most often occur as an interim measure, or a short-term stop-gap.

These categories are, to some extent, artificial.  For example, you can't get or give information without having some influence on attitudes, or at least producing some reaction.  Further, you can use many of the methods we later describe in more than one category.  The following paragraphs, however, will serve you as an initial guide to making a choice.


Disseminating information

When the main purpose of a consultative activity is to inform the community, the use of mass media or print media is usually indicated.  The more detailed the information, the more the benefit of using something relatively permanent, like print, rather than something impermanent like radio or face-to-face contact.

A combination of several media usually achieves better results than any one in isolation.  Some examples follow.  For all of these, it is a good idea to include a name and telephone number of a contact person for those who wish to follow it up in greater detail.

The list which follows is not exhaustive, and local committee will be able to develop their own alternatives to some of these...

Advertisements or feature articles in the local press

Newspapers which deal specifically with the geographical area affected are often more appropriate than state-wide publications.

They are also sometimes willing, with sufficient notice, to carry a feature article.  This is reasonably effective, and quite economical of effort.  Features are probably more likely to be read than advertisements.  Some newspapers are more likely to carry features for someone who has taken out an advertisement than someone who hasn't.

Direct contact with the editor is likely to be more effective than merely issuing a press release.  It is worth building and maintaining a good working relationship with the editor of the local newspaper: when editors understand the aim of the consultative process, they are almost always helpful and cooperative. 

It has been our 2 experience that the local press, too, will often take an article you write without wanting to change it.

Letter box drops

Flyers which have attention-getting headlines or graphics, but contain enough text to explain the situation well, can be distributed in letter boxes in the "catchment area" for the issue.


The same flyers which are prepared for letterbox drops can be distributed to local schools.  Some schools may also be interested in involving their pupils in project work; this makes it more likely that the parents will actually get to hear about it.

Notices in shop windows and similar situations

Colourful and informative posters in places where many people pass can be a useful way of reaching the community.  A combination of eye-catching headline or illustration and more detailed text is again often appropriate.

Non-print media

Of the non-print media, radio can be an effective vehicle if there is a local radio station.  Some stations carry messages of community interest without charge, as a community service.  Because of the impermanence of speech, it is not wise to depend only upon non-print media for detailed material.


Collecting information

In collecting information, there is often reliance upon people responding to advertisements.  This tends to achieve the greatest response from the vocal minority; it is unlikely to provide you with accurate information about the attitudes of the community as a whole.

Instead, activities which contact all stakeholders, or a representative group of them, generally yield more accurate and reliable information.  They also offer other advantages. 

The two methods in common use are interviews, and surveys.  For some purposes, using a number of representative small groups can gain many of the advantages of interviews and surveys.  When time and resources are limited, very small samples may work well if they are set up as panels or juries.

When the required information is about community aspirations or community priorities, search can be a useful technique.

In summary form, the methods are...


Interviews can be structured or unstructured.  In structured interviews you ask pre-planned questions in a predetermined order.  In unstructured interviews you let the questions you ask be guided by what the person has already said.

Structured interviews are in effect a survey in which people reply to an interviewer rather than writing down their responses.  More people respond to interviews than to written surveys, giving a more accurate result; but the cost is greater, often much greater, in time and expense.

Unstructured interviews can be effective in gaining information when you don't know enough to be able to ask the right questions, but at even greater cost.

As an alternative, you can combine structure and open questions: the interviewing can use a step-by-step process, but leave the questions very general and open-ended.  Such interviews gain the rich data of open-ended interviews.  The much smaller (and therefore less costly) samples still provide quite reliable data.  A version of structured-process interviews is described elsewhere as convergent interviewing.  3

Small-group surveys

In marketing research, use is often made of a group interview.  There are small-group survey techniques which use a similar approach.

Small groups can offer a number of advantages over individual interviews.  Different people raise different topics, but all people have a chance to comment on all topics.  Less interviewer time is required to contact a particular number of people.  On the other hand, it requires a little more skill on the part of the interviewer. 

A systematic approach to small-group surveys is known as group feedback analysis.  A version of it is described elsewhere.  4

Written surveys

The effective use of surveys requires more expertise than you might imagine.  To ask clear questions which do not bias the answer is difficult.  So is interpretation of the results.  Often, so few people respond that they form a very unrepresentative sample of the community.

Against this, surveys can be a very economical way of collecting a lot of information.  If you have access to the required expertise, and can achieve a good response rate, they are worth considering.

In many instances group feedback analysis will allow you to achieve the same ends while avoiding many of the problems.

Panels and juries

The main features of panels or juries are that they are chosen to speak as individuals while representing the community as a whole, and they are asked to function as a jury on behalf of the whole community.  One effect of this is often that they take their community role with great earnestness.  5

There are several ways of combining juries with some of the other methods of giving and getting information.  The jury can then assist by helping to interpret the information, and can react to the interpretation others place on it.  (In this use, the jury is sometimes called a "reference group".)


Exchanging information

For exchanging information, a combination of the methods already mentioned may serve you well.  For example, if the design authority wishes to be informed of community views on several design options, you might use print media to spread the detailed information.  One of the information collection methods might then allow you to gather community responses.

As an alternative, a number of styles of meeting can be used.  Two in particular have functioned well in community consultation: neighbourhood meetings, and search workshops.

Neighbourhood meetings

There is a detailed description given elsewhere.  6 The present description is, accordingly, brief: too brief to convey the real effectiveness of neighbourhood meetings.  They are, however, a very involving way of disseminating and collecting information.

Extremely good response rates have been achieved in some consultation exercises.  In fact, neighbourhood meeting have achieved better response rates than any other method: sometimes between 60 and 70 per cent of those approached take part.

To conduct neighbourhood meetings, compile a list of all of the stakeholders.  Then approach some proportion of them directly, and invite them to hold a meeting in their home.  To this they invite other stakeholders who live near them.  Give enough guidance that the invited hosts are confident enough to agree to help.

When very high community involvement is the goal, as it is here, neighbourhood meetings are recommended as the method of choice.

Search workshops

A search workshop, as mentioned already, also serves usefully as an information-collection method for some purposes.  It is described here, however, for its ability to disseminate and collect information.  You can also use it as a useful catalyst in generating community interest and involvement in a major project where priorities are uncertain, but views are not extremely polarised.  (A skilled facilitator may be able to use it where there is polarisation.)

Search operates by asking participants to define an ideal future.  After taking other information, they then revise this ideal, and use it as a starting point for developing more detailed action plans.

You can give other information to participants during the mid phases of the search.  They can then be invited to revise or add to their ideal to take account of the information.


Resolving differences

Most of the processes so far described are reasonably robust, even in the hands of people without a great deal of experience.  Processes for resolving differences need to be managed with rather more skill.  Intergroup conflict resolution is such a process.  Delphi is another.

Here are brief descriptions (detailed descriptions are given elsewhere)...

Intergroup conflict resolution

This is most suitable for issues where there are few stakeholders, and they are polarised into two main camps.  It can also be used where larger numbers of stakeholders exist, but two (or occasionally more) groups of key stakeholders are most influential in deciding community views.

Briefly described, intergroup conflict resolution encourages each group to state its own view clearly and specifically.  At the same time, people listen carefully.  They place themselves "in the shoes of" the other group, so coming to understand issues fully, from the other point of view.

Because there is an appreciation of each other's view, a new and more creative third position often emerges.

Even where both parties maintain their earlier position, if the process is managed well it usually improves relationships.  Understanding each other's position, people are less likely to attribute malice to other groups.

Face-to-face delphi

Delphi is most commonly used with a panel of experts who communicate only by mail.  Its usual outcome is that the experts on the panel increase their agreement as they learn more information from each other.  It depends upon a cyclic process.  Panelists are asked to respond several times.  At each cycle they are asked either to adjust their opinion in the direction of a consensus, or to provide information to explain their position.

A face-to-face delphi uses a similar process.  The panelists, however, meet; and they are usually organised into like groups instead of acting as individuals.  It is important to manage the process well, or it breaks down into a vigorous debate without generating agreement.


You also have as one of your responsibilities the maintenance of local involvement.  This is a task importance enough to warrant separate attention.


Maintaining involvement

One recurring difficulty with community consultation programs is maintaining involvement and energy over medium and long periods of time.  It is not difficult, provided some conditions are met, to generate initial enthusiasm and involvement.  Maintaining it demands special attention.

The processes you will use generate more ownership and involvement than many processes would.  Even here, though, maintenance in the longer term will require a special effort.

Some of the strategies which may help you to achieve this are as follows...

Realistic expectations

Try to have realistic expectations.  Be clear about your goals, and about the goals of other committees or working parties which you set up or join.  Try to understand the constraints within which the goals are to be achieved.  Unmet expectations are one of the major causes of a loss or morale and membership: satisfaction is usually more a matter of met or unmet expectations than anything else.

Temporary working parties

You will develop more local ownership and involvement if you use local working parties for as much of the work as possible.  Except where global and long-term issues are involved, it is usually better to set up a local and temporary working party of direct stakeholders than to attempt to do the consultation yourself.

It is important, however, that you coordinate this work, and stay informed about it.  To this end, it is highly desirable that one of you is a member on any working party formed.  In the interests of local ownership, it is also desirable that you do not take a typical "chair" role.

If you have process skills, then a role of process facilitation can be extremely valuable to the working party.  (In such a role, you guide the process, but do not offer or argue for any of the issues or options which are discussed.)

Facilitated meetings

The use of traditional meeting procedures is a turn-off for most people.  If meetings are facilitated, they are more enjoyable, and more effective as well.  If they are focussed on specific issues, and consensual in style, they are further improved.

It is also useful to meet only as often, and for as long, as your task requires (though occasional social occasions are also valuable).

Team building

Many of the satisfactions of community work are to be found in the quality relationships which are formed, and the worthwhile nature of the work.  This can be enhanced by providing each local committee with relationship building activities, and by ensuring that all involved are kept informed about the wider events which are taking place.


Community interest

Maintaining community interest also helps.  Your job will appear more worthwhile if you have the interest of an informed and involved community.  You can use both mass media and face-to-face contact to achieve this.  (This also helps to ensure that when you need help, it is available.)

An important trap deserves mention here.  You may be tempted to use mass media to publicise plans.  It is better resisted -- plans arouse expectations.  For reasons already mentioned, if those expectations are not met, dissatisfaction or cynicism result.

The recommended procedure is: Use more focussed methods to inform direct stakeholders about plans, to provide them with the maximum opportunity and encouragement to become involved.  Use mass media to inform the wider community about what has already been achieved.


A slow rotation of community members through the committees is highly desirable.  No matter how much "of the community" you are initially, you risk becoming distanced despite your best efforts.  If half of you retire and are replaced every six to twelve months, a balance between continuity and renewal is achieved.

Rotation also lightens your workload: you will find more people are willing to become involved if it is for a finite time.


Planning for continuity

You will find it worthwhile to devote effort to maintaining continuity.  One way of doing this may be to set up a working party with this as its specific responsibility.

There are a number of tasks such a working party can be given.  It can identify and recruit community members with the potential to help with community activities.  Perhaps it could maintain a register of community members and their interests and skills.  You can give the responsibility for managing the rotation of the local committees to such a committee.



  1. Dick, B.  (1990) Processes for community consultation.  Brisbane: Interchange, and Department of Transport.  back ]
  2. In this instance, the other half of the "our" is Tim Dalmau.  back ]
  3. See the file on convergent interviewing in the arlist archive.  back ]
  4. See the file on group feedback analysis in the arlist archive.  back ]
  5. I have no first-hand experience in the use of panels and juries.  This description depends greatly on information I gleaned in conversation with Alan Davies, formerly of the Centre for Continuing Education at Australian National University, and now with Southern Cross University at Lismore.  There is also a collection of papers on juries by Fred Emery in Merrilyn Emery, ed.  (1989), Participative processes for participative democracy, Canberra: Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University.  back ]
  6. See the file on neighbourhood meetings in the arlist archive.   [ back ]




Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1995-2000.  This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.

This document can be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (1997) Guiding the consultative process [On line].  Available at




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  Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 2.04w; last revised 20180729