More than two years ago, I wrote a post titled “Wanted: A Consultation Management System for Sustainability Standards” in which I described how technology could support the mandatory stakeholder engagement and consultation processes in sustainability standards.

Yesterday, I found myself researching available options to manage a consultation for a new sustainability standard. It turns out, not much has changed:

The most common approach to consultations is still to describe the consultation, the process and its purpose on a public website, provide the documents in question as a download and receive comments by email using a Word template. For examples, see the Marine Stewardship Council or the Forest Stewardship Council.

The ISEAL Alliance complements this approach with an online form – this allows for easier sharing and analysis of results, especially for more complex questionnaires. The Sustainable Agriculture Network uses a custom-built tool to gather feedback. Most organizations would also offer webinars and/or workshops to complement the online consultation.

In all cases, the standard-setting organization will manually compile a list of comments after the consultation. A synopsis of how these were taken into account then needs to be distributed to all stakeholders that contributed to the consultation.

I’m still wondering how to turn these ‘official’ consultations from their current, transactional approach into an actual conversation. What would happen if we, for example, allowed for public comments that other stakeholders could react to? The academic world has started experimenting with ‘open peer review’ – everyone can help to improve this text book.

An approach like this could be complemented with regular emails about the progress of the consultation, maybe even using specific questions on the issues at hand. Of course, stakeholders will still submit comments through email and other formats convenient for them, but the online platform could become the official gathering place for all feedback.

In the end, I’d probably end up using:

  • The organization’s public website to provide the consultation summary, downloads and links

  • A dedicated email address for consultation responses

  • An online form with email notification that exports results to a spreadsheet for further processing

  • A CommentPress installation to experiment with publicly available comments

  • A (bi-)weekly email to stakeholders and contributors about the progress of the consultation

To summarize the comments and compile the official synopsis of the consultation, I’d still use Excel and Mailmerge – no online service offers their flexibility at this stage.

What’s the best online consultation you’ve participated in? What works to engage stakeholders online in a formal process? What do you find tiring?

Consultation Management, revisited

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