Part 5: Conclusions and Recommendations

Public Consultation and Decision-making in Local Government.


A considerable body of knowledge and experience about public consultation has been developed in the last 10 years, both locally and internationally. Experience points towards an increasing role for local authorities – working with their communities – to determine the range and scope of services that should be available locally and how they should be supported.

The special consultative procedure will probably remain a feature of local government accountability and, as a result, local authorities need to continue the development and use of consultation policies and practices. The special consultative procedure should be seen within a context of a range of measures that make up good management practice.

Good Management Practice

What is obvious to those who have to put the consultation requirements into practice is that expectations on both sides of the process are changing and becoming more sophisticated. The significant benefits of increasing the opportunities for the perspective of community stakeholders to be considered an integral part of the planning process include:

  • Helpful – Informed decision-making using local knowledge and experience can ensure that all viewpoints have been considered, that all perspectives have been considered, and that all pertinent information has been made available.
  • Effective – The range of expertise, ideas, and knowledge available is increased and a better end product can be supplied to the public.
  • Good practice – A greater sense of ownership of problems and solutions develops within the wider community and, in the long run, it can avoid an antagonistic or litigious relationship between the local authority and the public. A higher level of understanding, credibility, and trust between the authority and its community is attained.
  • Pragmatic – A local authority generally cannot achieve its desired objectives without the support of the community. Decisions that better reflect community needs and demands mean that service to the community is improved. In addition, issues and concerns can be identified and canvassed before plans or projects have been fully developed – thereby helping to reduce costly changes.

The ideas and experience being built up are generally available to other local authorities which are starting to develop policies and management processes for handling public consultation. That collective experience should provide a good starting point for those authorities that have limited resources and do not wish to “reinvent the wheel”.

Good Consultation Practice

Although the specific nature of any consultation exercise will vary with the particular circumstance of a policy or project, we have observed a number of practices which are indicative of “good” consultation. The key to good consultation is good process.

Some of these practices are preconditions – such as having the right attitude, being clear, and identifying all those with an interest – while others relate to carrying out the consultation and dealing with the community’s reaction to the matter.

Indicators of good consultation practice are:

  • Having the right attitude – The consultation process must be compelling, so that people will want to be involved. A major barrier to participation in council affairs by the community is uncertainty as to whether the local authority really wants to listen to its views. The impression that the local authority is willing to both listen and respond to community views is the key to a successful process. This is a matter for institutional culture that needs to be backed up by administrative commitment and policies and practices governing how community views and concerns should be treated.
  • Allowing sufficient time – Projects should be planned to allow sufficient time for appropriate consultation. The time will vary, but the community should be given long enough to consider and respond to the particular matter.

Matters that are of fundamental significance to the whole community may well be signalled through strategic and annual plans and the associated consultation processes. They should then undergo a more detailed specific period of consultation that allows the community to focus on the detail of the proposal.

Consideration should be given to the reduced ability of the community to respond to proposals at particular periods of the year, such as Christmas and New Year. The time allowed for consultation should be adjusted accordingly.

  • Being clear – The local authority should ensure that the community clearly understands what it is being asked to comment on and how its views will be used in the decision-making process. The process should be demonstrably sensible and unbiased, and the outcome not predetermined.

Time spent on making clear not only what the authority is consulting about, but also what the consultation consists of and what its limits are, is likely to be repaid in avoiding needless dissension later.

Clarity of process and the purpose of consultation as a way to make informed decisions would reduce the risk of the consultation process being used to avoid making a decision.

  • Identifying all those with an interest – The local authority needs carefully planned consultation practices that identify the affected and interested parties with whom to consult, what they are to be consulted about, and the most appropriate consultation techniques to use.
  • Providing good feedback – Communities expect feedback from consultation. They want to be told about:
    • the process of subsequent decision-making, including delays, and, if appropriate, the reason for delays;
    • the sorts of issues and options raised by others; and
    • the decision made and the reasons for it.
    Communities need reassurance that their views and the efforts they put into expressing them are valued. The effectiveness of future consultation is influenced by people’s perception of the quality of past consultation and decisions.


We recommend that every local authority should:

  • Have appropriate policies and practices in place to ensure compliance with any specific legislative requirements, or any general duty to consult, when designing and carrying out a public consultation exercise.
  • Use the special consultative procedure in section 716A as a framework for public consultation where an issue is controversial and likely to attract public interest and opinion.
  • View public consultation as more than simply notifying the public and receiving written submissions.
  • Ensure that the public and the council are clear about how the consultation process will influence making the final decision.
  • Develop a consultation process that:
    • Is compelling, so that all affected parts of the community will want to be involved and know that the council is interested in listening to their views.
    • Allows sufficient time, so that everyone who wants to is given an appropriate amount of time to respond to the proposal.
    • Is clear about what the proposal is, why the consultation is necessary, what will be done with the information, and who will be making the decisions.
    • Identifies all those with an interest, so that all those affected and interested are identified and informed about the proposal and encouraged to participate.
    • Provides good feedback, so that all those who participate are given reassurance that their views and efforts are valued.
  • Recognise that public consultation is good management practice and a pragmatic way to assist with informed decision-making.
  • Ensure that sufficient appropriate skills and resources are available to develop and carry out public consultation exercises.
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