Re-thinking our approach to community engagement in the changing world

by | Mar 27, 2020

As our world and lives have been tipped upside down in the last few weeks, the team at Locale is responding to the evolving events around us and our communities. This means working out how we can best serve our clients and communities in this moment of extreme change and uncertainty.

With many of our projects having direct involvement with the community, this means re-thinking and re-designing our approach to community engagement. Luckily, there are plenty of alternative options available to keep the lines of communication open and projects moving forward.

Here we share five simple ways to keep conversations going with your communities and seek meaningful input over the coming months, without delaying important and valued projects which the community will need to see come to fruition when this pandemic passes.

1.   Virtual drop-in sessions

In-person drop-in sessions are often used to gain direct and individual feedback on projects. The benefits of drop-in sessions include:

  • the capacity to have one-on-one discussions with a range of community members
  • they are in informal and flexible
  • there is time to ensure that project issues and outcomes are understood by stakeholders

This approach can easily be adapted to a virtual environment. Using a combination of Zoom and Calendly, we have re-designed our upcoming in-person drop-in sessions for the Rural Lands Strategy for Wollondilly Shire Council.  Members of the public will be able to book in a time with us online and then to speak to us through video-conferencing. A different platform, but the same direct contact with important stakeholders – bringing the same benefits as face to face drop-in sessions.

2.   Online and hardcopy surveys

We often use online survey tools such as Survey Monkey for qualitative and quantitative data to inform the scope and design of projects. Surveys are a familiar process and tool which can be an advantage in times of change. They can reach community members anywhere they have an online connection. Don’t forget surveys can also be posted and made available as printed hard copies. Surveys can maximise reach and can be completed at a time suitable to the stakeholder that we want to hear from.

Recent projects where we have successfully used surveys include:

  • gaining feedback on master plan options for Rathmines Park for Lake Macquarie City Council
  • identifying community engagement preferences for Byron Shire Council
  • finding out current and future uses for foreshore spaces for Eurobodalla Shire Council.

3.   Spatial mapping tools

For larger planning projects where context and setting are important, online community engagement mapping tools such as Social Pinpoint can be an extremely valuable. These platforms enable communities to show exactly where their feedback, ideas and concerns relate based on spatial points from the comfort of their computer. This kind of engagement method may be useful now to progress community input into early phase design options in master plans or plans of management.

In our recent project with Gunnedah Shire Council, we used Social Pinpoint to gather community input to inform the vision and direction for the Local Strategic Planning Statement. Over 140 people left suggestions on the map, building a picture of community values, needs, ideas and vision for the future.

4.   Written submissions

Whilst many online platforms offer great potential to continue engagement with communities, it is important to remember that for some in the community this is not ideal. It can actually be a barrier to engagement.

In that sense, going back to basics is also going to be important. One traditional method of engagement is asking for submissions on a draft policy or plan. Having this option allows members of the community to have their say, without potentially having to learn new digital skills. For those more digitally savvy, online platforms like Have your Say can continue to be a portal for submissions.

5.  Old-fashioned telephone 

Another simple and effective alternative is picking up the phone and conducting one on one interviews over the phone. With people now self isolating, this is a way to connect and build relationships with people at a time when the importance of non-physical social connection cannot be underestimated.

An example of where this would be beneficial is targeted stakeholder engagement with specific user groups, or a call back option for wider engagement.

Wrapping up

As a small regional business, we are adaptive and resilient and have been set up to work remotely. We will be working hard to find new ways for communities to connect and engage.

We will also continue to meet the needs of our clients over coming months to the best of our ability.  Some of these needs are not yet known and it is certainly not business as usual – not for us or our clients or communities. We are here to do this together.

Please get in touch to talk about any challenges you are facing and we can work together to find a way to keep your project moving: 

Steve Thompson Director Planning and Strategy

Steve Thompson

Director - Planning and Strategy

T   0419 700 401


Emma Broomfield Director Governance & Mediation

Emma Broomfield

Director - Governance and Mediation

  0421 180 881



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