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Or, to be more specific; shall we get engaged?

Okay, so not the most romantic of proposals, but given the media furore around recent Royal announcements, and that today is the one for the celebration of love and affection, my thoughts have turned to what the terms ‘engagement’ and ‘consultation’ mean to those of us who use the language on a day to day basis.

There’s usually a healthy debate among consultors - and indeed within the courts - about the terminology which should be used when delivering services, but the one thing we all agree on is that the language we use, and the terms selected to describe what we do should be clear and leave no doubt in the consultee’s mind about what is happening, and what their opportunities are.

‘Engagement’: The action of engaging or being engaged.

Or, to take it one step further and use the definitions used by the Consultation Institute (www.consultationinstitute.org), Engagement is Actions and processes taken or undertaken to establish effective relationships with individuals or groups so that more specific interactions can then take place.

By contrast, ‘consultation’ is The dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based upon a genuine exchange of views and, with the objective of influencing decisions, policies or programmes of action.

To me, the difference is clear, but for a good consultation to be achieved (for all parties), the consultor must first of all engage with stakeholders, ahead of further interaction through consultation.

The two terms are familiar to us; we live in a democracy so are used to being consulted. So much so, that when we are not consulted, or the consultation is regarded as being substandard, communities are empowered enough to launch a challenge and demand better – sometimes through the courts.

In the world of planning, construction and infrastructure, guidance for engagement and consultation varies from one Local Planning Authority to another. But what is clear, in law as well as in principle, is that engagement and consultation should be done properly.

How developers and planning applicants as agents do this, is dependent on the size of the project in hand, and its potential impact on the community in which is it planned.

But what they need to do first, is understand their obligations as consultors, and what they can expect from consultees – including the risk that their project may be subject to a judicial review if the consultation process can be brought into question.

Ruth Shepherd delivers stakeholder engagement and community consultations through Results Communications Ltd and is an Associate with The Consultation Institute.
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