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Your ‘critical friend’: the evolution of the engagement consultant


by Gemma Gallant, Executive Director – Communities

A good consultant should, in theory, act as an extension of the project team, working towards the same goals and objectives as their client. But as a ‘critical friend’, an engagement consultant can add value and be worth their weight in gold to the client by spotting opportunities to improve engagement, putting new measures in place, or simply suggesting ways of doing things a bit differently to reach a better outcome.

To get the most value from engagement consultants, the client/consultant relationship should allow honest, respectful opinions to be shared. The engagement consultant should be the liaison between key stakeholders and the client, between the residents and the developer, between the local authority and the embryonic residents’ association. The duality of the role calls for advocacy from the consultant on matters where concessions could – and should – be made by the client, whether that is adjusting their masterplan, changing the mix of tenures or adjusting next year’s council budget. This is where the role evolves into a critical friend rather than simply an engagement consultant – when the consultant can suggest to their client that they stop, change or adjust the original plans or objectives based on the feedback from the existing community and stakeholders. After all, the goal of the engagement consultant should go beyond getting outline planning permission, getting feedback for a survey, or achieving approval for the reserved matters application. They should be building bridges with the community from the outset, gaining residents’ feedback on the proposals, and then encouraging their client to incorporate some of that feedback and ensuring the community is taken on the journey with the developer or council. 

In our last post, we talked about the five stages in the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum. If consultants are to reach the final stage, and truly focus on empowering the community they are engaging with, they need something in return from their client. With the best intent in the world, the consultant is only as good as their client allows them to be. When the client acknowledges that the consultant is also advocating for its (hopefully) newly empowered community and assuming the role of a critical friend, there is the opportunity to achieve genuine change and create long-lasting partnerships with the community. This will pave the way for positive construction periods, increased council participation, and future planning applications alike. 

If you would like to talk more about engagement consultancy, get in touch with the Communities team at [email protected]  

Your ‘critical friend’: the evolution of the engagement consultant