While early consultation is important, councils should approach consultation as an ongoing iterative process through all stages of a plan development exercise. Make sure this is not a one-off event or series of disjointed encounters, and not perceived as a token effort.
The form of consultation undertaken may also differ through different stages of the plan development process. Such consultation can be broken into three general stages:
- before notification
- from notification until the plan is made operative
- while the plan is being monitored and evaluated.
To enable effective and active participation in consultation throughout all stages of plan development, it is important that:
- participants are provided with clear information on the process from the outset. This should include how the plan development process works, what their opportunities are to participate at the various stages, and what consultation has occurred and is planned. The proposed timetable and methods for engaging in the statutory phases should be as clear as possible so that participants can see the opportunities to be involved
- feedback from all those involved in consultation can be provided, followed by a process which confirms to participants that their comments have been considered in shaping a plan. It is also important that a reasonable period is provided to participants in making comments: this may have to go beyond statutory minimums.
Stage 1: Before notification
Consultation during the period before notification may involve discussing:
- why the plan is being reviewed or needs to change
- the meaning of sustainable management for the particular region/district/topic area and audience
- monitoring information on the effectiveness of current plan provisions
- identification of key issues to include in the plan, and their reasons for inclusion
- objectives, policies and environmental results expected that may be included in the plan
- implications of various options for particular areas, for example methods and spatial dimensions (mapping approach/zoning)
- process, stages and timeframes that the review will follow.
Different forms of consultation that can be used during this stage include workshops, open days and seminars (for the public and council), publicity campaigns, and the use of a draft plan.
Internal consultation with council staff and councillors is a critical part of the plan review and preparation process, which may involve education on the process and its objectives, and well as a programmed path of internal input into plan development.
At this stage, you should also consider how much of your developing plan to use and present as part of the consultation process: such as whether you circulate themes, issues and objectives; or a more substantiated draft plan as part of the consultation process. Local or regional politicians may have strong views on these types of decisions. Therefore, ensure that you have political endorsement for your approach, and have established a political reference group to go back to if issues arise. You may have to revise or revisit your consultation plan.
Early consultation can help identify areas of agreement on a number of issues, areas or the overall strategic approach. However, consultation may also identify where further understanding on certain issues may be required through further consultation.
Stage 2: From notification until the plan is made operative
Consultation should continue after the plan has been notified, before and even during the hearings process. It can also occur while any subsequent appeals are being resolved, until the plan is made fully operative. However, consultation held during hearings or as part of appeal resolution has to be framed appropriately within the legal requirements and principles that direct these processes.
Good practice during this period is as follows:
- Immediately after notification, hold public meetings and workshops on the proposed plan to inform people of its implications, and consider using facilitated processes. For example, a well-trained facilitator may be better able to manage a sensitive issue where council may be perceived to already have a fixed position.
- Consider holding meetings and workshops educating people about the submission process, how to make a submission, and who can, prepare a further submission (see Submissions on a plan for details).
- Allow plenty of time for feedback from all people involved in the consultation process. Consider using more than the minimum statutory timeframes, especially where these may involve holiday periods such as Christmas and New Year (communities take longer breaks than 20 December - 10 January).
- When you notify the new plan/plan change, provide a summary of the feedback received during consultation before notification. Preferably provide the response to such feedback also, as people will want to see how you dealt with their input.
- Consider providing independently facilitated workshops on drafting submissions, as the process is much easier when submissions are well drafted and clear decisions are included.
- Provide for electronic submissions and provide summaries of submissions and copies of submissions on the website if possible: this provides the community with 24/7 access.
- Keep the website up to date.
- If particular issues arise from submissions (particularly unforeseen issues), consider entering informal or facilitated discussion with submitters on particular issues before finalising s42A reports.
- Inform submitters on progress on preparing for the hearings, particularly if there is a long period between close of submissions and the start of hearings.
- Provide information to submitters on the hearings process, and how they can best present their views/position.
- Allow for some flexibility in managing hearings, particularly if the use of 'off-line' consultation processes during the hearings process (adjourning and reconvening hearings as needed) may be appropriate: this will allow for some frank discussion, and possible further research and evaluation of options.
- The officers' reports should clearly explain how the matters raised by submitters have been addressed.
- Preferably, prepare a version of the plan with changes tracked, consolidating all recommended changes in the s42A reports. Make all hearing reports available on the web, as even those that do not want to attend the hearing(s) may want to see the report - and others may want to see what changes are being recommended.
- Keep the website up to date.
- Care should be taken in communicating with submitters, in a legal sense, and also because of the real risk of miscommunication at this stage of the process.
- Make it easy to see the changes to the plan that result from submissions: a version with changes tracked 'as amended by decisions' should be prepared and made available.
- Provide information on any appeals, their progress, the nominated contact person, and the status of the plan on the council website
- Keep the website up to date.
It is important for councils to continue to communicate with internal stakeholders throughout this period, to ensure:
- all council sections, staff, management and councillors have a common understanding and agreement on the purpose of consultation
- those parts of council who are likely 'applicants' are aware of the new provisions and changes and potential implications for their projects
- those responsible for implementing the plan are kept up to speed with the changes and potential implications to assist in reviewing the interpretation of provisions and practicality of proposed rules. This will also help identify any new processes that need to be put in place (including training) to help implement the plan once it is notified.
Stage 3: While the plan is being monitored and evaluated
Consultation during this stage will help assess how well the plan is working and help determine the need for further action, possible changes and improvements to plans. Different forms of consultation at this stage could involve: establishing focus groups and holding plan-effectiveness workshops; participants could be plan implementers, compliance staff and external users such as planners, commissioners or technical experts (for example traffic engineers and arborists).