Consultation and decision making

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One of the key ways to ensure a committed group of supporters is to involve as many people as possible in the early stages of planning and visioning the project. This helps to ensure that there is a large and varied group of people who feel ownership of the project – a sense of “I helped to set this up”. This can be crucial to the long-term success of the project by providing a wide pool of people with varied skills and contacts who have an investment in the success of the project and are likely to talk about it and recommend it to their friends, neighbours and colleagues.

Click on the ideas below for practical suggestions and detailed case studies.

Consulting the community

Start early. Consultation needs to start early and be ongoing throughout the planning of your project, especially if it is large scale and will be especially visible or disruptive for the local community. To find out what can go wrong if you consult too late, check out PlanLoCaL’s video on ‘A cautionary tale about consultation’. However, for some more sensitive and controversial projects, such as wind energy, it can be unwise to consult too early before the details of the project are known. For these projects it can be worth waiting to pursue constructive citizen engagement until after some assessment of viability and feasibility has been carried out, so that you are in a better position to address any concerns.

Broad and flexible vision. It is important to have a clear idea of what you are asking the community and how this relates to your wider vision or plan. This will give discussions focus and structure, and makes it more likely that practical outcomes will be achieved. For the consultation to be meaningful, it is even more important that whatever plans you do have are not already set in stone and that you have retained enough flexibility to adapt your vision in response to the feedback and insights gained from the community.

Who to consult. You need to consult widely to ensure the views of all sections of the community are represented and are fed into your project plan. Scoping exercises can help to identify and collate relevant people who may need targeted engagement, such as those close to the site or who are potential objectors, or you can also try PlanLoCaL’s participatory exercise ‘Identifying the stakeholders for your project’.

Format. The most appropriate means for consulting the community and involving them in decision making will depend on the purpose of the consultation and the nature of your project and community. Decisions which people are likely to feel particularly strongly about will require careful planning to ensure expectations are managed and that the process is, and is seen to be, as fair and credible as possible. Decisions which are less contentious can involve a more fun and informal process. Possible mechanisms for carrying out consultation and decision making include:

  • Public meetings. Consultation and decision making can be incorporated into public meetings in the form of brainstorming and visioning sessions or more formal voting processes (see the points on voting below). For example, when developing your project concept, everyone could be welcomed to an initial public meeting which offers the bare bones of your project idea and lots of opportunities for people to make suggestions of what they would like the outcome to be, how it could be done and how they personally could help or contribute.

  • Voting. Voting can be an easy and relatively fair way to reach a decision. Depending on your project’s legal structure, you may be required to hold general meetings at which it is commonplace for members to vote on key decisions. However, the downside of majority voting is that it doesn’t leave space for compromise or cooperation, and the end decision may not reflect the wants and needs of the whole group. Consensus decision making offers an alternative mechanism - Seeds for Change have some useful guidance on how to carry out consensus decision making on their website.

  • Events. Events can provide a platform for consulting the community through distributing surveys and questionnaires, incorporating competitions to come up with ideas and suggestions or simply providing a means for talking to people face-to-face about the issues.

  • Marketing and communications. Consultations may be carried out via your regular communications with the community, through promoting surveys and questionnaires or appealing to the community to pass on ideas and suggestions.

  • Surveys. Surveys and questionnaires can enable you to collect feedback and suggestions from the community.

Using the information. Community consultation should not be tokenistic or a tick box exercise – these efforts should be meaningful and have a real influence on what you do. Record points raised, truly take them on board and have a means for explaining and demonstrating how they have influenced what happens next.

Case Studies
Country: UK

Westmill Wind Farm Co-operative ran a competition for local primary school children to decide the name for their community-owned wind turbine. They held a ‘turbine naming ceremony’ during an Open Day event at the site, hosted by Korky Paul, a famous illustrator and author of Winnie the Witch, who handed out prizes to the winners of the naming competition. The prizes included signed copies of Korky Paul’s books kindly donated by Oxford Press University Press. The winning names were painted on to the turbines along with the logo of the schools the children were from.

Country: UK

Stroudco Food Hub use public meetings to involve people in decisions relating to their project. One exercise they use starts by briefly presenting the issues around the decision and the main options developed by the management group. They ask for questions of clarification and suggestions for alternative options - this sometimes needs to be tightly-chaired to minimise the scope for discussions and side-tracking. Everyone then gathers around a board on which are drawn six large concentric circles. Each of the possible options (including any proposed in the conversation above) is written on a large post-it note and laid out around the third of the six circles. Everyone is invited to move any of the pieces of paper inwards or outwards by one circle. Pieces of paper are moved inwards if you think it is a good option and outwards if you think it is a bad option. Each person can move as many pieces of paper as they chose, but they can only move each piece in or out by one circle. When everyone has finished, they all have another go. Soon clear preferences appear. At the end, a bit of time is spent discussing how to move these preferred options forward and it is explained that the management group will finalise plans on behalf of the community.

Source: Community-Led Food Initiatives action pack

Country: UK

Carbon Co-op is a community benefit society, and as a result they are accountable to their subscribing members and involving them in decision making is integral to their work. Members can contribute in a number of ways. They hold an AGM every year and attempt to structure the session to maximise involvement in key decisions. In addition to this they hold six monthly general meetings of the wider membership. Members can also stand for the committee and contribute as board members of the society. In terms of the wider community, i.e. people who are not members, they actively engage this audience through their work in a number of ways including public meetings, attendance at events, supporting community champions who run workshops with friends and neighbours and ongoing participatory projects. One example of their participatory projects is Eco-home Lab, which is their open source energy monitor project. They run Hacklab sessions and monthly MeetUp groups with a group of around 20 householders. This open structure means participants have begun to shape and dictate the development of the project and helped them create new tools and applications.

Country: UK

Low Carbon Oxford North carried out a travel survey to help with the planning of their E-Car Club. They sought to understand members’ travel patterns in order to understand how the E-Car might fit in with existing patterns. They were interested to know what journeys North Oxford residents typically made, so that they could work to improve the low-carbon options available. Questions included journey frequency and distance travelled by different modes of transport, as well as assessing public opinion and support for the car club.