How Not To Do Community Engagement
Having spent the last 15 years both organising and attending a wide variety of community engagement events I felt it worth writing some thoughts on the type of engagement carried out by some authorities and in some case others (developers, partnership organisations, etc). While many of these are well understood mistakes it is interesting how many authorities and developers continue to make them. After a couple of recent engagement events and talks I have been asked by some community groups to post these thoughts in the hope that some will read and improve their community communication approach. I am posting this mainly for the benefit of communities and what they really should be expecting from their local authority and others. I also hope some local authorities might use it to advise and improve their own engagement processes.
The blog doesn’t discount that some of these approaches can sometimes be used as part of a suite of engagement measures but far too often they are used in isolation and held up as wide and proactive engagement. The unfortunate result is that these techniques are often taken as the view of the community and worse still used to develop designs, polices and strategies! In writing this post my thanks go out to the many communities and individuals who helped to write this and shape my engagement events with their own suggestions, thoughts and issues over historic engagement calamities. The thing that really hacks me off about this subject is that it is not difficult to do it properly. Good engagement is vital to shaping places and using public funds, it just takes a bit of thought and effort.
I thought I might start with a brief introduction to the legal view of consultation and engagement set out by the Gunning Principles.
The Gunning Principles
The decision-maker’s discretion in how to consult or engage is not unbounded, however, it is commonly accepted that certain fundamental principles must be adhered to. These are known as the Gunning (or Sedley ) principles, having been propounded by Mr. Stephen Sedley QC and adopted by Mr. Justice Hodgson. A quick Google search on the Gunning Principles will give you a wealth of legal and guidance background. To summarise the key Gunning principles are that:
1. consultation must take place when the proposal is still at a formative stage;
2. sufficient reasons must be put forward for the proposal to allow for intelligent consideration and response;
3. adequate time must be given for consideration and response; and
4. the product of consultation must be conscientiously taken into account.
I can already sense many of you thinking well that wasn’t what happened in the last consultation I went to – and unfortunately this is often the case. With these principles in mind I will set out where many consultations or engagement events go wrong. So with those thoughts in your mind here are some of the more commonly made mistakes.
The Council Meeting or The ‘Tin Can Alley’
This type of event has been going for a while and normally involves a panel show arrangement. Council officers and sometimes other professionals attend the ‘top table’ and to a packed room present the case. What then happens is normally those with the loudest voice or the most confident or the most hacked off get to fire comments at the ‘targets’ on the top table. Normally very confrontational events and it often does not tackle the subject of the engagement. Fundamentally it misses some of the key issues around wider engagement. Those quieter or more reserved members of the community who may have some great ideas or options rarely get to express their view. The meeting is often dominated by the best ‘shot’ or loudest voice and the debate often gets skewed to those views with little balance. Officers tend to become defensive and not a great deal of compromise or solutions is achieved. Just don’t do it!
Location, Location, Location – and Time
The choice of venue can be a big issue and often is given very little thought or attention. Sometimes it is a difficult one to resolve as the large venue that’s ideal for the event isn’t always on the main drag. But some sensible issues can be looked at. Normally there is a choice of venues so pick the one that is more easily accessible. Ground floors with level access – yes sometimes rooms on the first floor and up steps are still used! A little bit of fun signage and way marking if the entrance isn’t clear. Enough space for the event type table layouts, games and discussion areas all need to be considered. The obvious choice isn’t always the best for example a busy shopping centre will catch lots of local shoppers with a bit of time on their hands however it may miss a big percentage of the local community or those with other demands on time and attention. Often the space in shopping centres is squeezed, there are other events on and it is not great for considered discussion and ideas.
I have always felt that you always need to review the location after the event and maybe consider a second venue if it didn’t work or how you plan your outreach consultation. It’s often not good enough to choose just one event on one day in one location for issues you are trying to get a decent response for. You should of course be doing some outreach consultation, going to see those that may not be able to make it.
The time and day for events is also critical, too often they are in the week and between 9-5 this is no good a large part of a community, for example those who work or might care for others. You have to consider evenings and weekends and in some cases going to meet groups at their events and times. Again this take a bit more effort and work but not much and is well worth the rewards and responses gained.
The Communications and Engagement - ‘well it’s the same thing isn’t it’.
Many authorities see their communications teams the same as community engagement teams and therein is the first mistake. The majority of communications teams are solely geared to delivering the ‘corporate’ messages, service unit information and dealing with press enquires and many do excellent jobs dealing with this sort of communication. However the skills required to engage with a variety of community groups and open up to both different views and criticisms is not what they are set up to do. It requires a different skill set and a different approach. The result is often the standard questionnaire, the Local Authority ‘bland’ magazine or rather redundant leaflet approach to consultation to ask if people like having their bins emptied - don’t we all? These approaches often do not reach many in the community apart from those who always respond. Furthermore the understanding of real engagement in communication teams is limited and often gives rise by suggestion to some of the other mistakes set out in this blog.
The Appointment of Public Relations (PR) teams.
This is similar to the previous issue and made by both local authorities and third party consultations. Once again PR firms who are extremely skilled in delivering slick PowerPoint’s, crisp marketing and advert style literature rarely chime with local people. They descend on places in a swarm of people in pointy shoes and shiny suits or as a friend once commented ‘pointless shits and shiny shoes’. I have often seen these well-oiled and well-dressed machines come to a juddering halt when trying to engage with communities and wider public. Lots of good money is often wasted on these firms in the name of ‘engagement’ which could be better spent on more local ‘low tech’ engagement techniques. One individual in a West Midlands community once told me as soon as they see someone in a sharp suit with a clip board they know they are in trouble and tend not to bother!
Routes in and Routes Out
The failure to put in place, what I call, a simple way in or route map into the local authority. A simple plan on a web-page or in the reception of who to contact for everyday community needs and how to get things delivered – even small things. It’s very fine to talk about engagement and breaking down silos but getting into local authorities is still very difficult for many community groups especially those hard to reach groups which find the route in even hard to access. Understanding that public space might be delivered by three separate units or that the planning tree team doesn’t deal with the trees on your local park is not translated to the public. How a community might access funds to help improve a local place space. We often use the simplification of the London tube map as an example of trying to help authorities simplify unit structures to help assist local groups getting to the right person. As anyone who has worked in local authority will tell you a layout of current services units within the local authority will not tell the full picture. The inability to sort this out can ruin all the good work done during positive engagement events.
Option A or B?
The late consultation or do you like terrible scheme number one or terrible scheme number 2? The decisions have been made the budget set, the scope of works defined and we are just asking you if you like paving or planting. This is one of the worst kind of engagement mistake and the most likely to both upset the community or scupper a scheme or project. Plus as you can see above meets none of the Gunning Principles. The community gets no real say in the process and it is in effect notification not consultation. Yet it still happens and baffles me as to why. I attended a training event last year where this type of engagement was being championed and early blank paper engagement being discouraged – I left and requested a refund.
The Great and the Good
This relates to the well-used stakeholder group a selected list of the chosen few. Often full of those who turn up to all the other engagement events or are regular objectors. It is also used used to avoid conflict with or tackle powerful local objectors who because they are given such a focus in a group are allowed to craft the project or consultation to address their own self interests. This approach often misses the bulk of the residents and smaller businesses in a community and thereby the scheme only really responds to the stakeholders demands and wishes. Stakeholder groups are useful but they need to be combined with wider engagement and some leg work in going out to hard to reach groups and the wider community. Sending an e-mail and then ignoring them because they don’t respond is both lazy and arrogant. I have a half written blog on getting out to hard to reach groups I will post soon.
The Missing 3rd of the Community
The UK population demographic shows in 2011 the over 19 million people were between the ages of 0 to 24 just under a third of the overall population. I would ask you to consider the last consultation event you attended and the social makeup of that gathering. It is unlikely that unless specifically focused it did not have many attendees under the age of say 25. This often falls into the too difficult or the hard to do box and then gets forgotten or side lined. The local youth parliament or young persons representative groups is often chosen but again choses those who always get asked and often results in a narrow young persons response. It is not hard to go and speak to local schools and youth groups it just takes a bit of time and effort.
The Tea Party Engagement
I wrestled with this one a bit and was the most difficult one to put in this blog and I know many will feel differently about this type of engagement. The issue here for me is often some very skilled engagement skills and personnel are used for these events. This is often done by very committed officers and representatives and is done with the aim of starting engagement or generating community interest however it normally has no end goal or power to shape or influence. They often end up as nothing more than well-meaning social events. They often raise community aspirations or promise things that can either not be achieved or they have no influence to achieve. In some cases this frustrates communities and can lead to consultation fatigue which then affects subsequent meaningful engagement processes and projects. If anything these officers need to be used by those with more influence such as planning and transportation departments rather than their own professional officers.
Professional Ignorance and Assumption
Many professionals go out into the community and engage on government policy, recycling strategies or planning issues assuming that Communities understand the system or legislation that supports it. People reading this are probably thinking this is a thing of the past. However I am seeing it quite a bit particularly in planning and transport related fields. I have recently seen a number of local authorities advertising the test of soundness for their Local Plans or Core Strategy documents with absolutely no explanation of what that means. Community groups spending long hours sending in comments that were discounted because they didn’t fit with the tests of soundness. This is very easy to overcome but needs some thought, care and testing before consultation and not just in the office. It may be hard to hear but often as professionals we are not always the best people to explain professional issues.
The Press Advert Solves All Problems!
This is a classic and often results in standard officer responses to lack of engagement. ‘Well no one showed any interest when there was a press advert last August in the local paper’! What they actually mean is we shoved a tiny indecipherable bit of text in back of the local newspaper next to all the traffic orders and general Planning notices. It leads to members saying well they only complain when there is an application. Yes that’s because the advert didn’t saying anything about the 14 storey tower or demolition of the locally listed building – however the document to which it referred to sitting on the dusty shelf may have! Use pictures, use films, use cartoons use a press article use anything to get it out of the back page in get it noticed.
Now you see it Now You Don’t - Budget Sleight of Hand
Local Authority budgets are notoriously difficult to understand – even for officers (outside the Finance Department that is). They are a minefield for local communities who may want to access funding or just understand how money has been spent in their area. Authorities are great at the pie-chart saying this is the department that we have decided where your council tax goes to but being able to have any access to those decisions or find local funding or support is like finding a needle in a haystack. If Local Authorities are going to embrace Localism and community partnership working then this has to change and become a bigger part of an engagement package.
Shock and Awe – Bang and Whimper!
Large scale community engagement doing all the right things and then no tangible response from the local authority. I have seen a series of these recently and this is a fatal error made by some local authorities. A consultation event where a strong response had been made across the community on the need for better public realm, and improved cycling and pedestrian facilities resulted in no action. The authority did nothing with this feedback apart from produce a few booklets - the approach of both planning and transport teams was to put it mildly non-existent. This weakens the credibility of both the authority and the positive engagement. Sometimes big issues are raised by communities but it is vitally important to go back with some kind of response. Be honest say it is a big issue you were not prepared for and give the community some indication of a response and action that might follow.
Don’t call us we’ll call you.
This feeds on from the previous issue and still affects many consultations. It is the inability of many local authorities to give feedback on engagement once it’s done. Some now do a consultation summary but often it’s a set of standard responses with no real meaning. It is vital that following engagement that a conversation is struck up. Nothing annoys communities more than no response. Communities are extremely intelligent and intuitive and aware of how the world works – in some cases more so than the local authority. Make sure you come back and tell them what you are doing. They know that nobody has got endless resources but they know you have some - so tell them what and let them help you work on the priorities.
One Man and His Dog
A brief and final point for the scheme or issue generated by an individual resident with a specific personal complaint. This is often someone with the ear of the local councillor or a vocal local, who generates a large expenditure of officer time and sometimes resources in a personal compliant or issue. In isolation this is not this is not too much of an problem but I have seen thousands of pounds wasted across a district or area on a number of these schemes where small individual complaints with little wider community benefit have been progressed by officers unwilling to provide local members with a strategic community view or perspective.
This has been born out of frustration over the years but at the core of this blog is a plea that we should all be aiming higher and wider in the aim to deliver better community engagement. Those of us who work in the world of place shaping are very privileged and owe it to those communities affected to do better and more.
I realise there are many more and I could possible write a small book on all the issues that this subject raises. With this in mind I would welcome your thoughts on this post whether you are in local authority, work for a developer or in a community trying to work with it.If I get some more thoughts I will definitely update this blog.