Best practice for community engagement in 2023
The start of any new year brings with it new possibilities and the chance to apply the previous year’s learnings to new challenges. For the UK public sector, that means a chance to prioritise healthy and happy communities across the country.
Now the focus turns from inspiration to implementation. What should stakeholders prioritise this year to ensure best practice is being delivered across the board? Here are a few of key ideas on how to refine citizen communication and get the most engagement out of it in the year ahead, gathered from govCommunity users.
Problems first, technology second
An effective technique, shared by Andrew Parsons, London Borough of Sutton, focusses on starting with the problem rather than the technology. In other words, building the tech around the intricacies of a particular issue. Technology is one of the key drivers in citizen engagement. It allows teams across the public sector to utilise new processes and systems with enhanced results. However, there needs to be a solid base upon which to build the technology. Technology must serve a clear purpose and be created with the desired results at the forefront of the design.
Think about what is at the core of a challenging issue, who it is primarily affecting, and if it requires a revised approach. This can be explored within wider digital and engagement teams until there’s a clear consensus landscape for the problem in question. Once this is done, move on to the technology process – from selecting the best platform, to designing it with these problems in mind – delivering it to those who experience the problem. These steps need to be transparent. Without transparency, data and technology lose their purpose for communities.
People often face the concept of being ‘approachable’, but what does that word really mean? Local authorities hold the power of listening and making things happen for citizens in the area. Many will count on local teams to help improve or change something that is impacting them. Charlotte Jones and Anne Wynde from Kent County Council highlighted how they adjusted their website to feel more comfortable and user-friendly, creating a place where citizens feel at ease to engage.
A robust consultation platform where people can find help and discuss or submit issues helps open up conversations and welcome communities to share their voice. A centralised approach also enables two-way conversations and end-to-end consultations. Any data results can then inform future decisions.
However, a consultation platform can also provide clear numerical evidence on topics that are top priorities for communities, which can vary across geographic locations. Citizens are more likely to approach council leadership if the topics that interest them are being discussed. Julia Stackhouse, South Central and West Commissioning Support Unit, outlined how they formed a thorough communications plan which considered who they would talk to, the purpose of those conversations, and the opportunities to collaborate, inform, and empower their community. When discussing these topics, friendliness and warmth should not be underestimated. At the core, this is what makes people want to engage.
Know the audience
Understanding a targeted audience means understanding the nuances in the different needs of both individual citizens and how they differ or align with the needs of communities. Ed Anderton at London Borough of Redbridge Council discussed the importance of having staff reflect on which groups are being best represented within the community and which are not being represented well enough. That can mean having honest, and sometimes difficult, conversations about who is being underserved, then making the effort to shift a focus to address underserved areas. Efforts can take many forms, such as a personalised email campaign, or an easily accessible questionnaire in plain English. This reminds people how an organisation can meet their needs, while showing a way to helpfully provide feedback that increases the voice of underserved groups.
Plan thoroughly to avoid cutting corners. Persistence and support lead to increased engagement. Allow time to create trust between a council and its citizens, which can be guided with collaboration and open dialogue between the two.
Look at the wider picture
It is not uncommon for local authorities to hear from the same people time and again when reaching out for feedback or encouraging communication. While it’s important to continue these discussions, greater success comes from widening the pool of respondents. Charlotte Jones and Anne Wynde from Kent County Council explained their desire to hear from those who don’t normally speak to the council, to increase the width and breadth of conversations being had.
One way to address this challenge is by stepping back to see what is driving conversations in the community. Local newspapers and online forums can provide fresh insights or perspectives, highlighting conversations that otherwise wouldn’t come straight to the council.
Where to begin?
When brought together, these elements can enhance a sense of community belonging and foster a connection with local authorities. But it can seemingly be intimidating to get started. Begin with small steps that reinforce open communication and the exchange of knowledge between local authorities and citizens. With economic difficulties facing many individuals and families, it is essential to remind everyone that additional support is available to them.
Designing and implementing tools that keep the community at the forefront is the first step to ensuring that citizen engagement is tailored, relevant, and accessible to every person.