Three engagement methods for community-led planning projects

by | May 6, 2022

Following on from our blog Ultimate guide: Community-led planning resources, we are continuing to notice councils become increasingly aware of the importance of community-led planning projects. There is a growing recognition of the success of the “bottom-up” approach that acknowledges that communities know what they need and what is most important to them.

We have been working on several community-led planning projects this year and we continue to strongly believe in the value of grassroots planning that puts the community in the driver’s seat to deliver real and lasting results. In this article, we explore the typical vehicle for driving community-led projects as well as three engagement methods that are an ideal fit with this approach.

The Community Working Group

Whilst each community-led planning project is unique, the overarching framework to deliver a project of this kind is typically through the early establishment of a Community Working Group (or similar name). Establishing a cohesive and competent Community Working Group from the outset keeps a project on track and can save significant time and budget later on.

A Community Working Group can consist of a sub-group of a larger community group such as a residents & ratepayers association. Or it could be a combination of a number of groups. In this case, the members are usually nominated by the head group to guide consultation activities and the direction of the project. In other cases, the Group can be formed by an open selection process or by direct invitation. Either way, it is important to have a governance structure around the Group. This includes a terms of reference and clarity around roles and responsibilities. The time commitment and project deadlines should also be identified early on.

Engagement methods for community-led projects

After the creation of the Community Working Group, the next phase is selecting the engagement methods for the project. As community-led planning involves engaging with communities in the ‘Involve’ to ‘Empower’ stages of the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum, engagement methods that enable high levels of input from the community are essential.

These are three engagement methods we have found to successfully work at the different stages of a community-led planning project:

1. Gathering information – Surveys

We have discussed in a previous blog how surveys are an engagement staple. The familiarity and adaptability of the survey format are part of what makes it such a successful tool.

In community-led planning projects, surveys can be extremely useful, particularly at the outset of a project. Communities often range significantly in the baseline level of information they are working with and by nature, a community-led project often covers a large cross-section of the community. The beauty of the online survey is its ability to be easily shared by community members within minutes.

Surveys at the outset of the project are also helpful in collecting baseline information around more abstract topics. For example, surveys can identify what the community values as well as their vision for the project. These outcomes can then be used as the basis for more concrete discussions with the community in follow-up consultation stages.

2. Exploring the issues – World Café

A ‘World Café’ is an effective way to bring the community together in simultaneous rounds of conversations about questions that matter. It allows the community to share multiple viewpoints about a project in large, but manageable, groups. Typically participants start a conversation with people at their host table and move to another table to continue the conversation with different people.

A World Café can be used to discuss large topics, themes or specific questions. In a community-led planning project, a World Café would mostly be used in a secondary round of consultation once there is a solid information base. For example, one table may focus on what is important to their community in the context of the local environment. Then another discusses housing and another converses on infrastructure. In a more specific instance, one table may focus on the location or type of play equipment they want at a specific reserve. Another discusses the landscaping or natural environment. And another converses on mobility or accessibility.

After the groups have rotated through all the tables, the facilitators or individuals share insights from their conversations with the broader group, allowing for group reflection. The overarching objective of a World Café is to share more conversations and to broaden the participants perspective. In turn, the community is more likely to understand new ideas and agree on a path forward.

3. Setting priorities – Feedback Frames

Feedback Frames are a simple yet customisable tool for secret score voting on many options. Participants rate each idea by dropping a token in a range of slots that are hidden by a cover. The results are later revealed as a visual graph of opinions. The objective of Feedback Frames is to remove the inefficiencies and social biases that can occur with traditional group making decision-making or prioritisation exercises (like dot voting).

In a community-led planning project, Feedback Frames are most helpful when the community has some tangible question or statement to focus on. Typically this question or statement is an outcome of the previous consultation round and could reconfirm outcomes or priorities. For example, in an initial round of consultation, an open question may ask the community what they value the most about where they live. This provides a list of common answers. A secondary round of consultation through the use of Feedback Frames may provide a statement to the community (e.g. ‘Preserving the natural environment is more important for our community than housing development’) and seek to understand the level of agreement within the community.

The anonymity of Feedback Frames in community-led planning projects is especially useful in avoiding ‘group think’ or ‘choice overload’. People also love the instant visual feedback.

Wrapping up

Despite there being hundreds of community engagement methods that can assist community-led planning projects, each has its own quirks and perks. It is important that community engagement methods are adapted to suit the particular project and community – so be sure to talk to your community about what best suits them. While we have found the above three engagement tools to be helpful, contact us to talk about how we can tailor engagement for your community-led planning project.


Emma Broomfield Director Governance & Mediation

Emma Broomfield

Director - Governance and Mediation

  0421 180 881



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