OPINION: Runway not at all clear for take-off

The Government seems to have taken to heart the old adage ‘Don’t ask a question if you don’t want to know the answer’ with its public consultation document for the proposed third runway at Heathrow Airport.

OPINION: Runway not at all clear for take-off

While everyone would agree that consultation is important for PR professionals, it has to be meaningful to have any credibility.

Week after week, those of us working in local government comms extol the importance of public engagement and solid, measurable data. However, when faced with a question such as ‘To what extent do you agree that mixed-mode operations (up to 540,000 ATM) could be introduced within the noise limits set out in the white paper?’, most people are likely to tick the ‘don’t know’ box or move on to the next question – even with the help of the three-page glossary of abbreviations included in the document.

Yes it is a complicated subject, but the choice of language does not help the public to understand what they may, or may not, be commenting on.

The consultation claims to have been carried out in accordance with the Government’s code of practice on written consultation, but the impenetrable questions and the apparent lack of availability of formats such as large type and languages other than English seem to miss the ‘ensure that your consultation is clear, concise and widely available’ point. No Crystal Marks here I’m afraid.

True, the Government is to hold a series of public exhibitions, but unless it provides technical specialists to translate the jargon into plain language, the public will be faced with the same dilemma: If I respond to the consultation, can I be sure I’ve answered the right exam question?

Consultation for consultation’s sake does all communicators a huge disservice and undermines the work of councils. Members of the public need to feel that they can trust their public officials to communicate with them in a way that they not only understand but feel will make a difference.

As rightly highlighted in this column last week, if the research exercise becomes the story, there is a problem with the strategy. And if the Government has already decided to give the third runway the go ahead, what was the question?

David Holdstock is head of communications at the London Borough of Hillingdon

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