Wednesday, February 7, 2018

NSIP Event 2018

One of our Principals, Lucy Farrow, will be talking at the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects event today.

She is discussing how Dialogue by Design (part of OPM Group) became the UK’s leading provider for Consultation and Engagement for infrastructure projects. We have worked on some of the UK’s highest profile projects and have delivered over 20 NSIP consultations.

See below or follow our tweets today on @OPMNetwork and @DbyDteam to keep up with her 6 Steps to NSIP Consultation Success.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Smart Cities Need Smart Consultations

Future Glasgow. Smart City Bristol. Digital Birmingham. Pilot smart city projects are growing exponentially across the UK – and we’re barely keeping pace with the rest of the world (In 2014 India announced a plan to build 100 smart cities). However, while big data and small technology is enabling us to design our infrastructure to be more efficient, responsive, and environmentally friendly, it’s unclear as to whether we’re able to envision the social impact of these changes.

In many cases, Smart City planning is informed by the latest methodology in service design. Traditional methods of “let’s plan it and then ask what people think” have been replaced by human-centred design methodology and co-creation approaches. End-users are involved throughout the process. Nesta’s “Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up” emphasises the need for collaborative technology and a focus on human behaviour. owever, these

In this sense, Smart Cities should be more people-centred than any other kind of urban planning previously undertaken.

However, while citizens may be involved in the design of a project, that doesn’t mean that there is a common understanding – or even any understanding – of what some of the overall impacts of Smart Cities and SMACT (Social, Mobile, Analytics, Cloud, Internet of Things) technologies might be in terms of quality of life and citizen well-being.

Those implementing and affected by traditional infrastructure and public policy projects are well-versed in communicating the balance of impacts of a project and asking for public feedback. Changes to health services, noise impacts from new roads, or threats to ancient woodland – while they can be complex – are familiar topics for people to digest and offer opinions on. In many ways, the whole idea of Smart Cities is to make all of these things better. If technology is enabling everything to be quieter, cleaner, and safer then what could the negative impacts be?

Nobody really knows the answer to that question, but we can take some guesses at what important considerations could be:

These potential impacts are relatively intangible, and difficult to imagine, but we need to make more of a concerted effort to start doing that. While there are some sophisticated solutions (such as creating an interactive AI simulations for people to experience), it’s unlikely that these are going to be within the budget of a local authority any time soon.

There is a challenge for organisations passionate about embedding local voice within policy decisions and infrastructure development to shape the future of Smart City consultations. How might we best help city-dwellers understand how their lives could change in the next 10 or 15 years and articulate their opinions on that? How might we design creative, open engagement and consultation solutions which enable frank discussions around possible impacts? And how can we ensure that these comments and opinions are fed into the Smart City movement to ensure that our future cities are fully human, and not just “smart”?

These are some of the questions we enjoy wrestling with at the OPM Group. Through our work with the FLOURISH project on autonomous vehicles, with the Arts Council England on Envisioning Libraries of the Future and in the health sector with simulation of future events we’ve become ever more interested in considering how to engage members of the public in possible futures. We believe that evolving Smart Cities is the next crucial area for effective engagement and consultation.

If you’re interested in joining these discussions – get in touch! Drop an email to Lucy Farrow

Monday, October 10, 2016

North London Waste Authority – Heat and Power Project


The North London Waste Authority (NLWA) is responsible for arranging the disposal, recycling and composting of waste collected by seven North London boroughs. In order to meet future waste management demand and minimise the amount of waste sent to landfill, NLWA proposes building an Energy Recovery Facility to replace the existing plant at Edmonton EcoPark by 2025.

As part of the DCO pre-application stage for the project, NLWA conducted a public consultation on the proposed development to ensure that the community and other interested parties have a chance to understand and provide feedback on the proposals.

OPM Group worked with NLWA to provide robust and transparent consultation and engagement with stakeholders and the public.

What did we do

OPM Group’s role involved providing strategic advice on the approach to community consultation, supporting event and materials design, developing and hosting the consultation response website and conducting analysis and reporting.

We liaised closely with NLWA and its technical consultants to ensure that our consultation outputs allowed the project’s technical team to hear, act upon and respond to the issues raised by respondents.


A summary of responses from the two phases of public consultation was made publicly available, along with NLWA’s response to the issues raised, so that those who participated can see how their comments have informed the next stage of development.

NLWA’s application has now been accepted by the Planning Inspectorate and is awaiting a decision.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Focus on water: PR19 engagement

Starting to think about the 2019 Price Review period? So are we! Ofwat recently released a policy paper on their expectations for the PR19 period, emphasising the importance of customer engagement and linking it clearly to pricing. To hear more about how we can help you put in place a strategy that meets regulatory requirements and delivers value for your company get in touch with our water specialist Amelie Treppass or check out what we offer.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ofwat confirm continuous customer engagement is key to enhanced status

Working regularly with water companies, we were pleased to see the industry regulator Ofwat publish its updated policy statement and expectations for PR19.

Like us, they welcome the step-change in quality and quantity of consultation and engagement that companies achieved with the 2014 price review. For 2019 they are confirming that ‘excellent customer engagement’ and how well it is reflected in a company’s business plan is likely to be needed to gain ‘enhanced’ status from the regulator.

The May policy statement is the clearest indication yet that the regulator is directly linking engagement to pricing.

So what does this mean for water companies? We think there are five main points that water companies need to address:

Engagement culture
Ofwat are very clear that ‘customer engagement is not a one-off exercise restricted to a specific time period in the run-up to a price review’. Companies will need to embed engagement into their daily culture across all staff and departments from board level down. In our experience even organisations that are achieving great one-off engagement work can struggle to achieve consistency across the piece. For those water companies that excelled at PR14 this period is going to be about consolidating good practice and spreading the word internally.

Collaboration not consultation
Ofwat are also clear that they expect a two-way process of engagement, not just soliciting customer feedback or reviewing data, but also informing and involving participants in co-creation and co-delivery of priorities and solutions. We think using online community platforms could be a really useful technique alongside more traditional methods as they provide a more flexible way to engage with customers over time.

A central role for stakeholders
Customer Challenge Groups (CCG) will play an even more important role this time round, both judging the quality of the company’s engagement and significantly how the results have been incorporated into the business plan. Clearly CCGs should be established (if they aren’t already) and involved alongside staff in strategy development from the offset. Ofwat want CCGs and by extension customers involved in setting the terms for PR19, for many companies this will mean going to CCGs earlier in the process.

It’s also good to see encouragement of innovative processes that recognise the constraints of trialling out new techniques. This is a supportive atmosphere in which to be trying out new ways to track revealed customer preferences, rather than using the stated preference methods of PR14. This is music to our ears as practitioners who want to push the boundaries. Too often, we get demands for innovation without any acceptance of the inevitable risk of trying something new, so kudos to Ofwat for taking a strong stance on both.

New audiences
We also like that they suggest involving a younger audience in longer-term issues, as the bill-payers of the future! When we look across all our engagement work we see young people consistently under-represented. Hopefully PR19 can provide some insights that will benefit other sectors on this front.

And speaking of the bigger picture; in the long term, with the prospect of competition in the residential market looming, delivering customer engagement can’t just be about meeting Ofwat’s expectations. Building a culture of strong customer engagement now is the best way to prepare for a competitive world.

If you’re looking for someone to talk to about PR19, or to discuss a tailored approach to engaging your customers and stakeholders, give our Principal Lucy Farrow a call on 0207 042 8011.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Warm Home Discount – Energy Advice: Consumer Experiences


The Energy Act 2010 provided the Secretary of State with powers to introduce support schemes for the purpose of reducing fuel poverty. These powers have been exercised through the Warm Home Discount Regulations 2011 to establish the Warm Home Discount (WHD) scheme. The WHD scheme is a 4-year initiative running from April 2011 to March 2015. The scheme requires suppliers to provide direct and indirect support to customers in or at risk of fuel poverty. This support may be direct, through rebates to eligible customers, or indirect, through industry initiatives that provide assistance to customers in or at risk of fuel poverty.

Ofgem’s role is to administer the WHD Scheme and ensure that energy suppliers meet their obligations as set out in the WHD Regulations. As part of its administrative role, Ofgem wanted to gather evidence about the effectiveness of energy advice provided through the WHD industry initiatives.

The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the benefits of advice provided to consumers as part of the industry initiatives element of the Warm Home Discount Schemes. The research was carried out by OPM on behalf of Ofgem and sought to:



Friday, November 7, 2014

Warm Home Discount: OPM research into consumer experiences of receiving energy advice

OFGEM have released a report on how energy advice delivered through the Warm Home Discount (WHD) is helping vulnerable customers. The WHD is a government scheme requiring participating suppliers to provide £1.13 billion of support to those in or at risk of fuel poverty over four years. The majority of support is through rebates to eligible customers, but can also be through third parties who provide things like advice on saving energy, or help with managing energy debt. OFGEM commissioned OPM to carry out the research which included a number of short, ethnographic films. The full report and films can be accessed here.



Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Affinity Water: Customer Deliberative Forums


Every five years water companies are required by the regulator Ofwat to take part in a Price Review process which determines the balance of investment, price and service packages water companies provide customers. Affinity Water, like all water companies in England, is required to submit a Business Plan as part of this process and ensure that customers are engaged in this process.

What we did

In July 2013 OPM hosted 4 deliberative forums for Affinity Water customers across Affinity Water’s region. The purpose of these events was to discuss the:

  1. Acceptability of the draft business plan: does the proposed plan achieve the right balance between the service people receive and the cost they pay?
  2. Outcome measures: do the proposed measures of success enable customers to judge Affinity Water’s performance?
  3. Style, content and language of the ‘Our Business Plan Consultation’ document.

Each event involved a cross section of 50 customers from the local area and were designed so that the majority of the discussion sessions were held in small groups, each supported by an OPM facilitator. Periodically, plenary sessions were held to feedback on the main points raised in the small group discussions.There were also 4 interactive voting sessions. At the start of each event every participants was provided with a remote control keypad which they could use to vote on questions throughout the day.

At several points during each event a senior staff member from Affinity Water gave a presentation. After each presentation, participants had a chance to discuss on their tables what they had heard. For the majority of the day participants were asked to discuss the following 4 customer ‘expectations’:

  1. Making sure our customers have enough water;
  2. Supplying high quality water you can trust;
  3. Minimising disruption to you and your community; and
  4.  Providing a value for money service.

For each of these expectations they were asked to discuss how they felt about Affinity Water’s proposed investment level in terms of what it would deliver against the amount it would add to their bills. They were also asked to contrast this with slower and faster pace investment levels.

For each expectation they were then asked to look at the proposed measures for assessing how well Affinity Water is performing against it. For each measure they were asked to discuss whether it was clear what the measure means, whether it would measure what it is intended to measure and whether they felt that any other measures would be helpful.

The final small group discussion today tasked participants with looking at the ‘Our Business Plan Consultation’ and commenting on: whether the language used is accessible; if any diagrams or photos used are helpful; if the report looks interesting; and whether they felt it was the right length or not.


The events were well received, with attendees giving consistently high quality feedback on the event facilitation and design. The results of the event were fed directly into the deliberations of the Affinity Water Senior Management and some of the findings, particularly on options for investment were taking into account in the final business plan.

You can read more about OPM and Affinity Water’s experience of engaging customers in the Price Review process in a joint article written for Utility Week. 


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Anglian Water: Discover, Discuss, Decide

Anglian Water commissioned a large programme of customer and stakeholder research and engagement activity to inform the 2014 Price Review process, as well as the company’s longer-term business planning. Through this programme, the company explored the views of household customers in a wide range of different circumstances, business customers of various sizes operating in a variety of sectors, future customers, and important partners and regional stakeholders.

The programme included a number of research projects. This report comprises a summary of all research into household and business customer and stakeholder views.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Could statutory consultation on housing schemes address a shortage in stock?

Those working in the field of housing are becoming increasingly concerned that developments currently in the pipeline are not  large enough to meet the significant demand for housing that exists.

Because of this, the idea of building on a larger scale (whether in the form of Eco-Towns or urban extensions) is gaining popularity. Yet housing development remains a controversial issue, especially where it involves greenfield land, and many schemes become stalled in the planning process.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) recently published a report making recommendations for how to ‘unlock’ larger sites for developments involving thousand of units. Delivering Large Scale Housing follows consultation with the Institute’s membership and presents recommendations covering 5 key ‘pinch points’ identified as stalling development on such sites: community engagement; land; infrastructure; finance; leadership and governance.

As part of the consultation process informing the report, I recently attended a workshop co-hosted by the Consultation Institute which focused on the first of these issues: community engagement. One of the discussion points which really struck me during this event was how a lack of clear guidelines around what consultation should cover means that it is often sidelined altogether by other demands on the developer. This can result in a poor standard of engagement, which in turn may end up worsening relations with the local community and undermining applications.

A comparison can be drawn here with the more robust requirements for pre-application consultation and engagement which apply to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). The Planning Act 2008 created a separate planning regime for such projects in order to avoid protracted and costly public inquiries at the application stage – like that for Heathrow Terminal 5. The 2008 Act sets out a number of requirements for consultation at the pre-application stage, covering the timeline of consultation, the groups of people to be consulted, and the need to demonstrate that regard has been had to feedback from each. Dialogue by Design has worked on a number of pre-application consultations under the Planning Act 2008 process, for clients including National Grid and EDF. While not perfect, when contrasted with the current situation in housing, these regulations do seem to offer greater transparency to participants and certainty to the developer. Ongoing engagement from an early stage allows stakeholders and affected communities more influence as the proposals take shape, rather than only being able to react to a final application. With the opportunity to iron out many controversies in this way, the resulting application is likely to be stronger.

Following a consultation by the Department for Communities and Local Government earlier this year, certain larger business and commercial developments will soon be eligible to be considered under the NSIP planning regime too. Housing remains excluded though, reflecting reasonable concerns about decisions on developments being taken away from local authorities. But if classing housing schemes above a certain size as NSIPs is not the answer, then perhaps some specific regulations are needed with regard to consultation for such developments.

As with energy and infrastructure applications, large scale housing developments pit national policy against local amenity. And at a time of acute housing shortage the pressure to develop on larger sites will only increase in the coming years. If community engagement and consultation is to contribute effectively to the challenge of where new homes should be built, it might be time to lay out some clearer ground rules about how they should do so.

Ian Thompson is a Project Coordinator at Dialogue by Design, part of the OPM Group.