Taking public consultation online: interview with Western Australia’s EPA

Donna Weston is the Communications Coordinator at the Government of Western Australia’s Office of the Environmental Protection Authority (WA EPA). Back in 2012, they started running their public involvement activity (primarily more formal ‘comment on referral’ processes) on Citizen Space. We talked to Donna about her experience…

What sort of consultation do you do?

For us, it’s most commonly a standard process of information-gathering – inviting people to share information with us about any significant environmental impact of actions that companies or others are proposing. The responses we’re looking for are usually technical, evidence-based ones, more than gauging the public’s opinion or feelings about the proposals (that’s the responsibility of other agencies).

What kind of influence does the feedback you receive have on the EPA’s decision-making?

On occasion, comments provide new information that may not have been evident in the documents provided, prompting a change of thought on a proposal; other times, it might reinforce the initial direction. We always look at the feedback and ask, ‘has that issue been raised?’

For example, we ran a consultation on a proposed shark cull, which raised international public attention. We had 10,500 responses in seven days. Many of the comments were primarily emotive, without offering new environmental information. Given our remit, these didn’t provide information the EPA could use to inform its recommendations to our Minister. But there were some really valuable contributions that did provide new intelligence on environmental impact.

We’re careful to be very clear about how we will use the information people share and what we will do as a result. We don’t promise to always make concrete changes based on people’s input because many responses touch on issues outside those the EPA can consider under its legislation, or may not be relevant to science-based decision-making.

How do you manage your consultations internally? Has this changed since adopting Citizen Space and doing more online?

Every referred proposal goes through a seven-day public consultation to help the EPA decide whether a formal environmental impact assessment needs to be conducted, and some then have up to two other consultation periods during the assessment. During 2015-2016, we ran 49 consultations – each of these needs to be processed by a small team so you can imagine how time-consuming this could be!

Running these consultations on Citizen Space saves heaps of time. For example, the ability to clone consultations has been brilliant. We use four or five template surveys that we clone and amend instead of starting from scratch every time. Cloning consultations also helps us maintain consistency, which is important for our processes, so that’s another bonus.

Responses and evidence submission used to be just via email; then we moved to a web-based list, but it was so clunky for what we were doing, and there were no analytical tools behind it.

For the sharks consultation and some others that attracted many responses, we used Citizen Space’s tagging system to track the key themes. Officers have found it very easy and helpful to tag responses with topics (like ’groundwater’, ‘vegetation’, etc) so they can analyse responses by themes. This is definitely an improvement on searching through an Excel spreadsheet!

What would be your top three tips for other organisations wanting to improve how they manage and run their own public involvement work?

  1. Know beforehand what you want to do, and be very clear about what you’re going to do with the feedback that comes in. You can’t go out and ask questions without a clear idea of what you’ll do with that info. You’ll lose integrity as a government department. Once the public loses trust in you, it takes a hell of a long time to win it back.
  2. Have a consistent, coordinated approach. Even if you’re a massive department, with different teams running your consultations, the public still sees you as a single entity. Using a single platform like Citizen Space really helps with consistency, but have a monthly meeting to compare the language and approach you’re using. A member of the public should have a similar experience each time they interact with you. Coordinate your activity. If you can, try not to have three consultations in two weeks, then nothing for six months. Organisations are getting used to planning their social media strategies two months ahead, so you should be able to plan your consultation strategy, too.
  3. Let people know where they are in the process. In our context, there are up to three points during the assessment process where the public are invited to give input. People sometimes jump up and down and say, ‘this is the first I’ve heard of this!’ But in many cases there will be more opportunities to comment coming up, so we need to make sure people are informed and understand that. I think all our consultations need to be honest and clear about the way the environmental impact assessment process works. With the sharks consultation, 95% of respondents had probably never been exposed to the process before, and we needed to clearly explain to those people what the nature of the consultation was and how the commenting process worked to show that we really were genuine about wanting their input.