We know what it is like. Even if you put in all the effort to run engaging workshops, creative online surveys, and you may have even deployed virtual reality and your public exhibitions. But at some point, you still have to run consultation the traditional way – a 12 week consultation, where people can write in or email their views to you.
And local authorities still receive a lot of comments that way. Recently, I spoke to a strategic transport body that received over 100 responses to a policy document as part of a consultation. Responding to each one individually is a time-consuming and intensive task.
Luckily there are ways by which you can hack this. Where you can properly consider the comments, respond well, and cut down on the time that you spend responding to them.
Set up a response process
Planning is everything. The worst thing that can happen is for messages to pile up in the inbox and in tray, to be dealt with once the consultation closes. So take the time to set up a basic process before your consultation goes out, which manages each message as it goes through. Then set up a rota with all involved in the consultation process, and stick to it.
When I have managed inboxes for consultations, I have split them into 4 folders. These are:
Then, i know that any email that is in the inbox itself has not been dealt with, and is in most need of attention.
Where there has been more than one person working on the responses, keep the same folder structure as above, but as sub-folders under a folder for each person.
Take the time to acknowledge receipt
This seems counter-intuitive. How is taking more time to acknowledge receipt of someone’s comments saving time? Simple. An information black hole is one of the worst things for consultation.
By saying thank you, and importantly giving a timescale by which you hope to respond to them in detail, you are saving yourself by stopping them from chasing you later when you tell them nothing. Also, people will actually like the fact you have acknowledged them.
Whatever you do, DO NOT set up an automated email with a standard response. That is lazy, and gives the impression you are fobbing them off. Nor do you need to type a different acknowledgement each time. A good hack is to have a selection of 10 pre-prepared acknowledgement responses in a document, and when an email comes in, copy and paste one of them and send it.
Hack your reading
We’re sorry to say this, but you cannot get away from reading the responses. But there are ways that you can make it easier, and boost your reading speed at the same time.
Firstly, reflect on when during the day your concentration is the best. For most people, this is usually the morning, often during late morning after the body has warmed up and the brain has got into its rhythm. It is often best to avoid reading responses in the afternoon, as your brain begins to tire.
Also, do other reading apart from just the consultation responses. The best way to improve your reading speed is to…read! Read magazine articles, newspapers, books, something that you enjoy reading. And it will boost the speed at which you read other things.
You should also not read the responses in your head. This is really hard to do, as we are taught to read by speaking the words, and we carry on this trait by speaking the words in our heads. This substantially slows down your reading time to the pace at which you speak. So practice not reading in your head, or distracting the internal voice by playing music.
Finally, whatever you do, do not read a passage several times. This means that by the time you read a response once, you have in fact read it several times because you have been constantly going back over words. Do not do this. If you must, come back and read the whole thing again later.
Categorise the issues raised, and form basic responses for each of them
By the time that you have read many responses, chances are you will notice very similar messages coming through. People want buses improved, they have an issue with a particular junction, or even they have literally copied and pasted a letter sent by someone else. Use this to your advantage.
Craft a basic response to each of these issues raised. Almost a common structure to how you will respond to that issue. But do not copy and paste that specific response to each person. Use it as a basis to provide a more personal response.
For example, instead of responding with…
“Improving walking and cycling infrastructure across the city is a priority as identified in the Local Transport Plan.”
…use that response as a basis to say…
“Improving walking and cycling infrastructure in your neighbourhood is a priority as identified in your neighbourhood delivery plan.”
Subtle changes, without having to type out the same sentence again and again.
Often, it is such small changes that are seemingly insignificant that can save you a lot of time as you respond to consultations. Without giving your citizens the bland, general responses that make them feel like they don’t care. Give them a try, see what you think.