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Susan Fox, direttore comunicazione del dipartimento dell'infromazione del governo inglese, suggerisc

26/04/2006

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PR guide to public consultation By Susan Fox MCIPRDirector of Communications and External Relations, Information Commissioner's Office Introduction There is a growing expectation that organisations consult with their stakeholders, and the public sector is actively encouraged to do so. Consultation plays an important role in increasing the transparency of an organisation, and in contributing to open government. Ultimately, consultation will help you to create a better policy, service or product. It is about listening to, and acting on, the views of your stakeholders. It can also be the first step towards encouraging greater public participation. Why run a public consultation?  An organisation may want to run a formal consultation for many reasons, such as:- To formulate realistic policy e.g. new legislation or government initiatives- To fulfil a statutory duty e.g. in the case of environmental regulation or town and country planning- To understand what customers want e.g. when making changes to public transport- To encourage public participation e.g. in a community development programmeWhat does a public consultation look like? Typically, a public consultation would follow this pattern:- Announce the consultation, issue your proposals, invite responses- Close the consultation, consider the responses, amend your proposals- Announce your decisionSix steps to a public consultationStep one: know the framework-  Check the Cabinet Office Code of Practice on Consultation. It is a practical, useful document explaining what is expected of a good public consultation.- Check the legislation and guidance under which you are operating. Statutory consultees, timescales and methods may be specified.- Involve your technical and local specialists - they will know their field.Step two: plan it- Be clear what you want to get from the consultation and agree your objectives first.- Be specific about what you are consulting on. For example, if you are consulting on levels of a certain chemical emitted from a nuclear power station, then say so, or people may think the consultation is much broader - for example, whether the power station should be there at all.- Clarify your organisation's role and the roles of other organisations. For example, you may share regulation of a factory site with the local authority. All three parties should communicate, so the public can see the interests of each organisation and understand where the boundaries of authority lie.- Plan your activities. Consultation can be a lengthy process - the Cabinet Office recommends at least 12 weeks for a written consultation. Allow for media deadlines, document production, venue availability and staff holidays. Publish clear timescales, and stick to them. Step three: know your stakeholders- Ideally, you should already have an established dialogue with your key stakeholders, rather than encountering them for the first time in your consultation exercise. - Your stakeholder list should include anyone who may consider themselves to be interested in or affected by your proposals. This should cover, for example, statutory consultees, protestors, parish councils, the local MP and residents. - Think laterally: commercial sites may attract commuters from a wide area; people living across a bay or on the other side of a river may be affected by emissions from a factory just as much as those living next door to it. Step four: consider your communications tools- Your full consultation document, outlining your proposals, should be in plain English, and available in different languages and formats. - A consultation questionnaire is helpful - it's better to ask specific questions so people are clear what you are consulting on. Frame your questions carefully and test them out in advance.- A one-page summary is worth producing as an introduction to the issue, and may be all the detail some people need. It is also ideal as a consistent basis for writing media briefings, letters to MPs, informing staff etc. All information should be on your website. - Leaflets are useful if your distribution is good. If your budget doesn't run to publications, a simple word-processed fact sheet can be effective.- Send news releases to local papers and trade press, and check out relevant websites and chat rooms.- E-consultation packages are useful if the audience is likely to have access to computers. You can also web cast your public meetings so those who can't get there can watch them live, or watch them at a later date.- Press adverts are effective, if costly. Remember that in some cases you are obliged to place a statutory advert in the local papers.- The personal touch is the best. Seek out your stakeholders and give them your message. For example, if you know the Parish Council is concerned about the issue, offer to brief them at their next meeting. Remember to inform the local MP. Write to the regular protestors and your most frequent critics so they hear it from you first. - Make it easy for people to respond. Offer a postal address, telephone, fax and email. Step five: meet the public - Public meetings can be confrontational: they are often hijacked by a few individuals. A drop-in event is a good alternative: people can choose their level of involvement, and there is lots of opportunity to ask questions in a non-threatening environment. - Book a neutral venue, such as a town hall, and be available for several hours (include an evening so people can come after work.- Publicise it, encouraging the public to call in, and offer appointments for those who would like more information in detail or the chance to chat face to face with an expert. Put up exhibition materials and hand out leaflets or fact sheets, as well as your consultation document and questionnaire, and have plenty of staff around to answer questions. - Whether you opt for a public meeting or a drop-in event, make it easy for people to attend. Choose accessible, public buildings in a convenient location. Choose a time when people are available, and publicise it well in advance. Signpost it. Make it relaxed - offer refreshments if you can, ensure staff wear name badges and that visitors are greeted.Step six: respond and feedback- At the close of the consultation, thank everyone for participating and sending in their comments. Remind them of your timescales.- When you announce your decision, explain it. If you have done something differently as a result of the consultation, say so. Tell people directly where this is possible (particularly if you briefed them personally at the start of the process). - Use the same communication channels to announce your decision as you did to inform people of the start of the consultation - for example, the same local papers, websites and trade press. Summary - the golden rules of good consultation- Be clear about your purpose- Plan thoroughly- Seek out your stakeholders- Make it easy- Listen and feed back

Susan Fox MCIPR is Communications and External Relations Director at the Information Commissioner's Office. Before joining the ICO, Susan worked with the Environment Agency as Corporate Affairs Manager in the North West region; she has also worked as Customer Communications Manager with GUS Home Shopping, and Public Relations Manager at Unilever.

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