For many years the default position for big public consultations has been to have a consultation document buttressed by a range of engagement processes, most notably public roadshows. There has been an assumption, often unchallenged, that this is best practice.  The current pandemic has made us rethink how we approach a consultation, and it has resulted in a more effective approach that now might well become the new default position.

NATS and London Luton Airport are currently running a consultation proposing changes to the arrivals flightpaths for the airport. This consultation was going to be launched earlier in the year but was postponed because of COVID-19. We reviewed our existing consultation strategy and our regulator, the CAA, approved our proposal for a new digital-led approach. 

COVID-19 has meant no face-to-face engagement events, but their importance could not and should not be underestimated. Members of the public expect an opportunity to view proposals and have the opportunity to talk directly to airspace change proposers. 

We have done what we can to replicate face-to-face public exhibition events with a virtual exhibition and a series of webinars. Virtual exhibitions are not completely new, and there are various agencies that offer them.  But all the ones we looked at had limitations, so we built our own bespoke model with multiple rooms and a rich mixture of content; not just the formal documentation but also videos and infographics to bring to life some of the more complex aspects, and a postcode search tool so that anyone can find out how the proposals may affect where they live. 

Earlier in the year NATS commissioned Savanta ComRes to carry out a segmentation research project to help us better understand different sections of the public and how best to reach them. We have used this research to inform our communications about this digital consultation, particularly using social media to intelligently target different publics using messages that will hopefully resonate with them, and content that works for them.  

Our hypothesis was that this would outperform the face-to-face version as digital is no longer the preserve of limited sections of the population. The ONS estimates that 91% of the adults in the UK were recent internet users in 2019 

At the time of writing, four weeks into a 15week consultation, the virtual exhibition has been visited by more than 5,000 people and more importantly is reaching nearly all age groups equally. Our impression is that these numbers and the age spread are much better than we could have achieved at this stage by traditional public exhibitions.     

However, there is still a section of the population who we know we can’t reach this way; what used to be called the ‘seldom heard’ might now be termed the ‘digitally excluded’. These are primarily people who cannot or have chosen not to go online. They need “hard” copies of the consultation materials to make their views known and we need to make it as easy as possible for them to do that. We have extensively mapped who is likely to fall into this group according to available statistics and identified ‘gatekeepers’ whose help we are seeking in getting these materials to them.   

Our hope is that digitally led consultations are recognised as the new best standard for consultations. Future consultations should be given the green light to innovate with the focus being on how best to reach consultees rather than being driven by traditional and often ineffective models of engagement.  


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