Key jobs in productive community engagement that you need to ‘nail’

Community engagement for a planning project can seem daunting – but it does not need to be. Typically, community engagement in planning projects has recurring activities, which we have grouped into five activity areas for convenience. If you manage to consider actions in each of those, your project has a good chance to be successful. Following these steps will generally generate a good well-rounded project, and each trip around the cycle of activities will make it easier.

Defining the goals for community engagement

It all starts by defining a small set of high-level goals for your project. To ease complexity, it is good to have a small set (no more than three) key focus questions that stands for the overall purpose / higher level question of the engagement activity. Those are useful to clear your thinking but they also help to focus respondents. The key goals may differ depending on what stage in the project the engagement happens: I.e. Is it about finding high-level priorities, or are there already designs/ideas, that need further fleshing out; or is it about a final yes and no vote. Generally, if there are more than three high-level goals, consider whether it makes sense to split your campaign up into multiple more focused projects.

Preparing visuals and an engaging copy

For development schemes, some time is required to reformat drawings produced by engineers or architects into appealing visuals. There are different strategies, not all are very effort some. For engineering and technical drawings, often the simplest (low cost & quick) strategy is to provide a brief mock-up or stylised image that excludes all irrelevant levels of detail (unnecessary descriptions, measurements, file versions etc). The material should speak back to the overall intended outcomes as well as the audience that needs to be reached.  

For projects that engage with a wider area, it helps to relate to places through the use of maps so that on the minimum key areas of interest are defined, as those can help respondents focus and better relate to your goals and areas of interests. Providing maps in addition with text content has been shown to help with recall and insight and so respondents will appreciate any material that engages them in ‘right brain thinking’ and raises their level of spatial awareness, improving the actionability of responses.

Getting momentum and targeting the audience

This is about the challenge of getting the message out. Here it is useful to gather a list of possible organisations or identifiable individuals that may be supportive of the project or who have an intrinsic stake in the project. In some instances, the local authority would have a good number of contacts, too. Reaching the right members of the public thus becomes a question of finding the right identifiable groups and facilitating existing networks.

Another popular alternative is to pay for targeted advertising on social media. Especially Facebook provides micro-targeting and can reach specific demographics based on smaller locations. Social media is also the ideal to reach younger demographics that may be more likely to use digital media than older groups.

Finally, a physical presence is not to be underestimated. It is worth to spend some time considering where notes and leaflets could be left for individuals to pick them up and feedback later. It is often quite challenging to grab people’s attention through flyers and leaflets alone, which is why it is useful to tap into established networks (see point above).

Gathering responses  

Hopefully, by now you have all key ingredients in place: easy to communicate goals, some suitable visuals, and a set of contacts to start with. Once a project is underway, especially when it runs online, it is good to arrange things as efficiently as possible while also making it as easy and convenient for target audiences to engage.

Digital-enabled approaches are perfectly suited for this approach. In the ‘gathering momentum’ step, a clear call to action can work wonders especially if combined with a clear link or address for individuals to go. A digital-enabled approach can facilitate the convenience of online media, to help tailor the responses to the audience through interactive visuals and feedback channels that handle all the heavy lifting, such as automatic confirmations that responses were received.

A digital-enabled approach can also provide a great foundation for workshops and public events if they communicate the same goals clearly. It is good to accept responses by writing or by email and collate those systematically for follow-up. Likewise, a digital-enabled approach helps respondents follow-up or input at a later date.

Responding and actioning

Online media are great to establish a forum for participants to review their responses and, if so configured, other individuals’ responses. Once the project closes, it is worth to follow-up with a brief email to those individuals who left contact details. Short and clear updates with simple thank you note and an indication of any next steps often work wonders to help manage expectations. It would even be appreciated by those who left negative responses.

Choosing the right tools will help you make it easier to respond to individual comments, for example by noticing comment groups and tailoring respective replies to all those responses that related to a similar issue and to customise the follow-up response easily. All being well, you should now have a good idea of public perceptions and two or three ideas for optimising your project.

Time to celebrate – you are done! Till the next time…