One of the challenges of writing a concise, interesting resource management or Long Term Plan consultation document is that the starting point is a much larger, more detailed source of information.
Councils need to transform the key elements of detailed analysis into a document that engages a wide range of people in the community with variable levels of interest in council issues. If this doesn’t happen, councils end up having to make decisions on proposals based on very limited feedback.
This article provides some ideas on how to engage your audience through your consultation documents.
Choose a specific angle
Don’t try to summarise all matters covered in the source documents. Only select the most important things. When narrowing down what to include, consider what public feedback is needed to inform council decisions.
The more unique and fine-tuned your angle is, the likelier you are to create an interesting read. Note that subjects are different from angles. Here’s an example to show the difference.
- General subject – Council is considering a policy change away from targeted rates to more reliance on general rates to address issues related to sea level rise.
- Specific angle – Council is considering whether all of x town should help to pay for the sea wall to protect the 50 coastal properties in y suburb.
The introduction is the most important part of each section of the consultation document. That’s because people will use the first paragraph to decide whether this section of your document is of interest and relevance to them. That means your introductory paragraph should answer the questions of what the article will cover and what is in it for the reader.
Here are three different types of introductions to consider:
- Descriptive – this is a good way to paint a vivid picture of the issue, but be careful to avoid too many adjectives
- Anecdotal – a personal story (with that person’s permission), for example, how one particular person or group of people will be affected by a new rule or rating change
- Summary – this approach quickly gets to the point, and may refer to the consultation question on which you are seeking feedback.
If you decide on the anecdotal or descriptive introduction, a ‘zoom in and out’ structure will work well. After your specific introduction (such as telling someone’s story about the impact of poor drinking water quality in their area, or describing a significant storm event in your district), you can then zoom out to discuss the general issue (such as the pros and cons of different rating approaches, or how the council is planning to manage future natural hazard events). At the end of the section, you can then zoom back to tie the general discussion back to the initial example, followed by your consultation question.
If you are writing a summary introduction, aim to provide answers to the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when and why) as well as ‘how’ in the first one to two paragraphs. After that the pace can slow down to one key fact per paragraph. Here’s an example.
In January 2021 the residents in x suburb received a notice outlining what information will be included on their property files related to increased flood risk by 2050. All councils must make this type of natural hazards information publicly available, as this enables residents to be prepared for future changes and to make informed decisions about property purchases.
This summary can then be unpacked bit by bit. These paragraphs are likely to include:
- the extent of the affected area in x suburb and predicted flood risk by 2050
- how residents in x suburb can request changes to the LIM notice by providing verified information
- how the wider public can access the natural hazard information by requesting a LIM at the Council building.
Your last paragraph in each section of the document is also very important. Three types of closing paragraphs to consider are:
- the circular ending (which ties in with the introduction)
- the summary ending (but try to avoid this as it can be boring and repetitive)
- the looking ahead ending (which offers a glimpse into the future or possible direction to take, and will lead naturally to a consultation question).
Acknowledgement: The ideas about angles, openings, structure and closers are adapted from a NZ Writers College course I completed last year on Writing Articles for Websites and Blogs.