The demand for public involvement in decision-making has increased in recent years. International institutes such
as the Jefferson Center (USA), the Institute of Public Policy Research in the United Kingdom (UK) and the
Danish Board of Technology are advancing the importance of democratic participation by promoting citizen
consultation methods to achieve better public policy, environmental sustainability outcomes and to broaden
This rising call for consultation also corresponds to increasing affluence and educational attainment. Concerns in
relation to local and regional environmental and social problems are heightened, and people expect engagement
in the policy work of government aimed at addressing such issues. Strategic planning is integrated policy work
with these issues at its heart. Consultation is therefore fundamental to supporting effective strategic planning.
Objectives for consultation in support of strategic planning
The choice of technique or method for consultation in support of strategic planning will inevitably and
necessarily vary depending on the rationale or objectives of the exercise. Essentially, four objectives should
underpin consultation. All should be addressed in the pursuit of successful strategic planning. The four objectives
are as follows.
1. To generate content. Consulting with stakeholders, affected parties, experts or the broader community is a
critical way to enhance understandings, generate ideas, test possible directions or gain feedback on progress
or implementation. In this way it is a supplement and complement to other techniques for developing content
such as literature reviews, desk based research or quantitative analysis.
2. To build legitimacy and trust for the planning and related decisions. Wide public engagement and consultation
builds legitimacy for planning. The more consultation there is during strategic plan-making the greater the
likelihood of acceptance of local and site level decisions that are consistent with higher level aims established
during strategic planning processes. Building support for strategic plans from early in the process is critical to
acceptance of the goals and outcomes of the process as well as for effective and smoother implementation of
the plan. Greater citizen involvement is developing as it becomes clear that engagement methods applied around
the world increase public support for political decisions (1).
There is much more chance of a politician or decision-maker ‘holding the line' in relation to individual decisions
if there is a widely accepted and regarded strategic plan also in place. Recent decisions by the Sydney Lord
Mayor and Council to develop bike lanes on the streets of inner Sydney in the face of fierce opposition from
many local residents and businesses are a case in point. The Council's vision for walking and cycling is clearly
articulated in Sustainable Sydney 2030 and these directions were well understood and warmly received by the
community. This community support for the strategic planning framework has provided effective fortification and
legitimacy for the Council in implementing the bike paths plan.
3. To increase awareness for ongoing and future engagement. Increasing awareness of strategic planning through
consultation is related to building legitimacy, but is more about generating a positive community response in
relation to key issues of concern (such as climate change, affordability, congestion). There are political reasons
for anticipating this outcome from consultation (politicians understandably want to be widely seen to be acting
positively on behalf of the community), but it is also quite legitimate to undertake consultation to spread
awareness, to foster engagement in the future and to ensure that reporting on progress with implementation
and performance ‘means something' to the community.
4. To create connections to or between responsible stakeholders to build a platform for effective implementation.
A highly strategic objective to undertake consultation might be to involve stakeholders who may have a role in
implementation. They could be representatives from elsewhere in government, external authorities, companies,
representatives of peak bodies or individuals. Information and insights would be shared to develop stronger
networks and groundings for future decisions.
Particular techniques can address all four objectives (though they may be principally related to just one or two).
In general, in undertaking consultation the explicit objective is usually around developing content: but the other
objectives should not be neglected in designing a consultation program.
The poor outcomes that can result from a focus only on content are illustrated by the recent experience of the
Murray Darling Basin Authority, where a draft guide to future water allocations in the Basin was presented for
the first time at public meetings. There is little evidence that the above objectives were considered or
understood in the design of this consultation program. The public meetings approach to communicating the
findings was clearly a very bad choice.
Another consideration in the design of a consultation program and the choice of techniques - and related to
delivering against the above objectives - is timing. Consultation would be expected in the course of preparing
a strategy (as an undesirable minimum, only on the preparation of a draft document). Occasional (regular
or irregular) consultation is likely to occur when key decisions are to be made, when updating strategies or
when reporting on progress and performance. Continuous programs of consultation are the ideal (though
obviously resource intensive). Their intention is to create a feedback loop of consultation based planning,
implementation decisions and outcomes measurement.
Some successfully implemented ‘ongoing' community engagement methods in Australia have included the
Brisbane and Parramatta City Councils' Residents' Panels with 14,200 and 2,147 members respectively, (2,3,4)
and citizens' juries undertaken by Wollondilly Shire Council and the Ballina community in New South Wales (2).
Internationally, the City of Portland, Oregon (USA) is well known for its extensive consultation processes,
targeted throughout the strategic planning and implementation process. For its current Portland Plan it has
established a Portland Plan Advisory Committee and Portland Plan Community Involvement Committee. A
‘Handbook' is available, with background to the plan making process and opportunities for involvement identified.
Opportunities for comment and contributions are available at public events (‘Play the Portland Plan game'),
at specific forums and through on-line surveys. It has a clearly articulated engagement process and a web-site
with a wealth of accessible information. (5)
There is a need to balance interests through strategic planning. This includes understanding both local and
regional interests and developing settings that deliver the greatest net community benefit. This may mean that
some local or particular interests are not able to be satisfied or met, in the pursuit of wider benefits. Consultation
therefore needs to be tailored to represent and identify both community wide benefits (‘whole of city' approaches)
and local interests. Processes should provide opportunities for a wide range of voices to be heard.
Methods and Techniques
The various methods of community participation (6) address, to a greater or lesser extent, the objectives
• Inform - one way communication to provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist
them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions;
• Consult - two way communications designed to obtain public feedback about ideas on rationale, alternatives
and proposals to inform decision making;
• Involve - Participatory process designed to help identify issues and views to ensure that concerns and
aspirations are understood and considered prior to decision making;
• Collaborate - Working together to develop understanding of all issues and interests to work out alternatives
and identify preferred solutions; and
• Empower - Final decisions rest with the community.
Techniques to deliver against these methods vary widely. They include the following:
As mentioned, the choice of method and technique will depend on the context, the objectives being addressed,
the timing and the geographic scope appropriate to balancing and representing relevant interests. Consultation
inevitably generates feedback, and an expectation that this will be, at the very least, considered.
There should be a clear process for documenting outcomes from consultation and showing how feedback is
considered. Showing how feedback is considered can be challenging where community and stakeholder views
are divergent, but at the very least the logic for particular conclusions should be transparent. The preparation of
a consultation report or some kind of feedback to those who have been consulted is now considered an integral
part of the process of maintaining community involvement in plan making and plan implementation.
SGS wishes to acknowledge the contribution made by Lincoln Hawkins and Kirsten Davies,
of Beaconhill Consulting, to the material from which this article was prepared.
Footnotes and references
1. newDemocracy, newDemocracy Foundation. Viewed feb 2008: http://newdemocracy.com.au
2. Carson, L. and Gelber, K. (2001) Ideas for Community Consultation: A discussion on principles and
procedures for making consultation work, NSW Department of Urban Affairs and Planning.
3. BCC (2008) Your Say: It's your city, have your say.
Viewed 28 Feb. 2008 http://www.brisbane.qld.gov.au/ BCC:BASE:1757582555:pc=PC_76
4. PCC (2008) Parramatta City Council's Residents' Panel.
Viewed 28 Feb. 2008: http://www.parracity.nsw.gov.au/residents/residents_ panel
6. Clarence City Council, Community Participation Policy 2010