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Career development: Interpreting a consultation

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We recently looked at the skills and resources needed to carry out a consultation. Here, Helen Bird finds out how you should go about interpreting the results

Once a consultation has been carried out, the key to its effectiveness lies in the thorough and correct interpretation of its results. Because information is often gathered from a range of sources and in a variety of formats, the task can seem like a daunting one. But, with an effective processing system, sufficient resources and a methodical approach, it needn’t be.

1. First steps

Planning consultant Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners has optimised its data interpretation process with the help of an in-house ‘consultation tracker’. The system collates, analyses and manages consultation feedback, and can even capture electronic responses (such as iPad surveys) directly.
Planning director Pauline Roberts says it brings simplicity and efficiency to the process. “We log everything electronically, identify key issues relating to a project, and identify what response is required, by whom, by when and what the outcome of this is.”

2. Who should be heard?

Pauline RobertsIt is important to remember that all responses in a consultation are of value to the person or organisation that made them. “Our handling of them should always respect that,” says Roberts (left).
“Most responses from the public are often quite short and to the point, and normally quite easy to interpret. Often, issues are repeated and clear themes emerge. Representative groups and amenity societies often make longer submissions and raise more technical points, but it’s easier to follow them up to clarify points and subsequently respond,” she adds.
Ranking the importance of participants’ responses won’t necessarily be straightforward, but should always reflect the core of the issue. 
“Those who participate in the planning system more know what represents a justifiable planning objection and what doesn’t,” says Roberts. “This means the representative groups and amenity societies can often raise more substantive issues, but that isn’t always the case. A local historian, for example, might have a unique insight on heritage matters.”

3. Delivering results

Effective interpretation means...
1. Being thorough. Whatever your system of data input and analysis, a thorough and methodical approach is key. At NLP Planning, Roberts confirms, once all the data is logged electronically, the team identifies the key issues and the response that’s needed.
2. Identifying clear themes. Key issues are often repeated among responses and themes are likely to emerge as a result, so it’s important to note what they are.
3. Giving weight according to issue, rather than respondent. It may sound obvious, but it’s not necessarily those who shout loudest that should be heard.
4. Validating the information you receive. When responses are unclear or seemingly refer to non-planning matters, it’s important to – where feasible – follow up with the respondent(s) to clarify what they mean. This is something that the Our Live Park team found was needed, says Stuart Mearns.
5. Having a well-briefed team. The consultation process is intense, so for a small team it is a big undertaking. Ensure that you have sufficient resources and that the team is clear on the aims is imperative to timely interpretation.
6. Setting clear timescales for implementing changes. This allows all participants to know where they stand and what is required of them.
Entering into a consultation means committing to sharing the results in a timely and well-considered way, says Roberts. “Good developers want to do this as a matter of course as they see the value in consultation and therefore do it willingly,” she adds.
Setting the parameters of a consultation before it begins is crucial to managing expectations after the event. Roberts believes that timely feedback is essential in explaining what has and hasn’t been taken on board, and the reasons why.
“Reasoned argument and feedback builds trust and respect – even if the answers aren’t always what a consultee wants to hear,” she says.

4. Turning results 
to plans

With feedback gathered, processed and shared, how does it then translate to workable policies and plans? According to Roberts, a workshop environment is effective for discussing the key issues raised by the consultation and formulating a response.
It might be that options are tested and costed before a solution is presented back to the community and to planning officers. “If no changes are possible then this needs to be explained,” Roberts adds.
Indeed, before action should come communication, as well as clear timescales that set out what will be done and when. Above all, says Roberts, “consultees should know where they stand and what is required of them”.

A multimedia approach

Stuart Mearns is forward planning manager of Our Live Park, a local plan consultation by Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park that set out to discover how planning can help improve the area “from housing to jobs, and everything in-between”.
The project took a modern, multimedia approach in a bid to capture as much information from as many different sources as possible, which made for an interesting interpretation process, says Mearns.
Sharing results
The RTPI’s guidelines for the publication of results include:
1. “Making best use of new technology by posting relevant publications on the internet, while also providing a facility for non-digital organisations and individuals to obtain equivalent information.”
2. A good example is provided by Rother Local Strategic Partnership, which conducted a series of consultations with the residents of Bexhill to find out how they thought the town could be improved. The website shares the process and the results of these consultations with the community that created them.
3. Importantly, the information is presented in a highly accessible and digestible way. It breaks down results into summaries and categories, and presents feedback as bullet points. The site even includes photos taken throughout the consultation process.
4. A true community collaboration should involve participants as much after the event as during, and a simple but an effective bespoke website such as this one is an excellent way to achieve this.
“We were encouraged by the Scottish government to use innovative and different ways to gain a whole range of views. Using social media is not particularly labour-intensive, but if you’re using the tool in the right way it’s very helpful.
“We had over 40 per cent of responses submitted formally via our website, which was quite good for us to process because we don’t need to have somebody typing out the comments. We also received about 80 comments via the comment box on the website.
The first step is the checking process and the key thing here is to have your systems in place and enough resources – i.e. people. We did the consultation over 11 weeks and, for a small team of four, that’s quite a big undertaking. But to move quickly to analyse the responses, you need to get your procedures in place in advance.
“We’ve done a first blog piece on our website, which is giving a taste of the responses that came in – volume and type – at a broad level. We’re in the process of checking the detail of the responses and once all of the information has been entered, we’ll publish a report, which will be upfront and transparent.
“I’m conscious that this is a journey that we’re going through as an organisation, but I’m trying to bring our audience with us. We’ve found that Twitter is successful for engaging with our peers and businesses, but Facebook is much better from a community and public point of view. We’ll tailor what we say according to the audience. The content will be the same, but it’s how we’ll present it.
“I think [by using a multimedia approach] we’ve got a more diverse range of comments. We also held public meetings and went along to events, so people left comments in lots of different ways.
“It’s about bringing them all together and looking at their substance. Community organisations will want to know what people are saying and I’ve already been to one of our bigger towns and given them a summary.
“It’s key to keep that relationship with the community.”

Resources – learn about consultation in detail


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