Many of our projects involve stakeholder or community engagement as a core element. From this experience, we have come up with our five top tips on how to get the most from your community during the engagement process:
1. Respect your community
First and foremost, respect your community. Respect that there will be different views even if they go against your professional judgement. Also respect that some locals may know more about a local issue than you do – they can be great holders of history and sources of detail about an issue that you may not have considered or thought of before.
2. Listen to your community
Whilst this tip might sound like stating the obvious, it is critical. If you go in with the mindset of “going through the motions” you will inevitably not be listening for the snippet of information that might make all the difference to your project. You need to listen to your community which in turn will help you know your community – that’s not just collecting submissions and collating them into a report. It means really listening to what is being said and taking time to understand the context and history and using this to inform and shape your outcomes.
3. Make the information relevant, accurate and accessible
Nothing gets a community further off side than providing inaccurate or irrelevant information or material – it’s a sure-fire way to start the conspiracy theorists off on a tangent! So it is important to check the accuracy of information before it goes out to the community and remove the jargon where possible.. Also make the information easily accessible and make sure it is relevant to the issue that you are consulting about. This really goes back to the first point about treating your community with respect – there’s every chance that a well-informed community engagement process will give you much better results.
4. Make the consultation timely
Gone are the days of placing an ad in the paper and making a document available online for review. That’s not engagement. If it’s something that is important to the community, then take the time to get it right by talking to them up front. More often than not, it will save you time (and money) to get things right at the start and to carry that conversation through to the end than to have a project come un-stuck at the twelfth hour. For controversial issues a non-combatant process results from careful planning of it, not by accident.
5. Don’t set and forget
Finally, don’t carry out extensive engagement at the outset and then assume everything will be fine through the rest of the project. If the community has taken the time and effort to engage, then it is important to close the feedback loop and let them also know about the outcome and how their views were taken into consideration. Councils are often criticised for paying lip service to community views, and not closing the feedback loop is one reason why.
In summary, there’s no one formula for the “best engagement” process, but if you enter the process with a genuine desire to hear from your community and with the above tips in mind, you might be surprised by what value they can add.
If you are interested in finding out more about how to engage with your community on your next project, please get in contact with Steve or Cinnamon who both hold the leading qualifications for community engagement from the International Association of Public Participation: