The Government is now advising people to stay at home to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but public consultation is still possible with a digital-first approach

At Participatr, online consultation and community engagement is what we do, but we
almost always recommend a multi-channel approach to public consultation under normal circumstances, with a mix of online, print and face-to-face engagement methods.

Despite the current public health crisis all but completely ruling out traditional drop-in events and workshops over the coming months, public consultation without face-to-face contact is possible as long as you carefully consider a few factors to make sure that no-one is left out:

Create a user-friendly consultation website

Setting up a consultation website is always good practice, meaning that those that find drop-in events and workshops inconvenient and intimidating can get involved at a time of day convenient for them. But when you're relying on your website as the primary platform for public involvement, it's vital that you get it right. Your website should be simple, concise and smartphone-compatible, making it easier for people to get involved and helping you gather better, more representative insight from the community. Find out more about our digital engagement platform.

Set up telephone and SMS services

When running a traditional consultation exercise, people would normally have the opportunity to visit your drop-in event to ask the project team questions and address any issues they have. In the absence of this opportunity, it's important that you provide another way for people to ask questions and address their anxieties, otherwise they may come up with their own conclusions without all the facts.

Including a helpline telephone number on your publicity is a good way to do this, but your engagement team can become inundated with calls if every publicity postcard hits doormats at once, especially if the majority of people are at home during the day. Think about setting up a voice mailbox to handle your telephone enquiries and include the option to send the project team an SMS message if their query is less urgent, so you can respond when the phone line is less busy.

Brief local representatives

Make sure you provide a detailed briefing to the local ward members, town or parish council and community leaders on your plans, by email and telephone, before you start a conversation with the community. They are your mouth, eyes and ears 'on the ground' and may get asked questions about your project face-to-face, at a ward surgery for example.

By giving them a detailed briefing before the community gets involved, they will be in a better position to respond to local enquiries with the facts and take the weight off your engagement team. Because you've established a line of contact early-doors, they can direct any questions they can't answer back to you.

Send information by post

When people are self-isolating, you can't rely as much on the more active members of the community to spread the word of your consultation to friends, family, neighbours and work colleagues.

Your first post-of-call should be to send publicity by post, using an A5 postcard for example. This might be the only way that someone will find out about your consultation, so make sure it has real impact, grabs their attention and motivates their involvement. Only including minimal information, using a bold headline and including positive imagery are good ways to achieve this.

Make the most of social media

Again, using social media promoted content is good practice under normal circumstances, but can become all the more important when the usual methods of publicity can't be relied upon.

When self-isolating, many people will be spending more time than usual 'flicking' on social media, which presents a good opportunity to grab the attention of those with a stake in your project that live beyond the boundary of your maildrop target area. Social promotion campaigns can drop a link to your consultation website into the news feed of people with specific interests, in certain age groups or at particular life stages, encouraging those with an interest in your plans to visit your website and get involved.

It's business as usual for Participatr during the COVID-19 crisis and our tried and tested digital platform can be deployed within hours to carry out online consultations. Get in touch to find out more.

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