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Community Engagement – Getting to the Heart of the Matter

May 10, 2010

This site from Australia shows how a council is using online forums to engage with at least some of their constituents on a range of matters including:

  • plans for varying local rates
  • council strategy for trees and
  • the development of community and cultural facilities

This particular council has a resident population of around 74 000 and participation on the forums is relatively low.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, rate variations has got by far the most traffic almost certainly because of its direct impact on the self interest of local people.

There is no doubt that the forums have surfaced a wide range of opinions that may not otherwise have been heard – and some clearly offer clues to the council on areas where its own performance may benefit from a review.  The forums provide an interesting case study in the potential and limitations of such online engagement tools for informing decision making and policy.

However the point I wish to make is not about the medium of engagement (in this case online) but on the content of engagement.  In this case we have rates, trees, community and cultural facilities, a planning application and integrated planning strategy as the topics for engagement.

My question is this.

Of the 74 000 residents of this council, how many have their own progress genuinely held in check by any of these issues?

How many people cannot make progress in their own lives until the council sorts out its strategy on trees? Or integrated planning?  Or even business rates?

The answer is very few.  In most cases perhaps none.  These are examples of what I call lowest common denominator issues.  Most people will agree that they matter and need thinking about.   They are also impersonal enough to be safe topics for discussion.  But for next to nobody will they be the really critical issues that hold back individual talent or community potential.

Many of those 74 000 people will have ideas about how they could make a better life for themselves, their families and the community.  And most of them will have a pretty good idea about what is stopping them.  Instead of engaging local people in the somewhat ‘removed’ priorities of the council, the council could design engagement processes that enable people to engage with each other, the council and other stakeholders, in their real priorities for making a better life.  To uncover the real issues that act as barriers to real people making progress in real lives.

If people are to be open and honest about what is stopping them from making progress we need to have a relationship with them that is trusted, confidential, competent and compassionate.  I suspect that such relationships cannot generally develop entirely online.  That they still demand an element of face to face conversation.  That they will need real people working in the community with good engagement and development skills.  They may also need additional reserves of social capital, community networks and ‘brains trusts’ that can be accessed to provide support and expertise as and when it is needed.

Until we start to engage large numbers of individuals and groups on the real issues that they feel are preventing them from pursuing their aspirations then we will not get to heart of the matter.

Perhaps we should stop seeking to engage the people in our strategies and plans, but instead seek to engage ourselves in theirs?

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2 Comments
  1. Hi Mike

    I’m one of the directors of Bang the Table, the company that is hosting and moderating this site for the Blue Mountains City Council on our EngagementHQ platform. It’s great to be getting coverage from so far away and I’m really interested in the point you make.

    I feel a little defensive about your observation on the numbers of people joining in. When we started working with this particular council they had just finished a series of public meetings about their management plan and nobody attended any of them (which doubtless was a bit depressing for staff). What online engagement does is allows people to participate at their convenience and at whatever level they wish and we invariably massively exceed the numbers that attend other forms of engagement.

    The comments you see are just one level of participation. We have detailed reporting tools built into the site and many hundreds of people spend time on the site viewing documents or videos. Only a proportion of these people choose to comment but they have all been engaged to some extent and I strongly believe that there is value in this.

    We also find (we have worked with more than 40 councils and 80 clients on over 200 projects) that communities become more active over time and will get very involved on issues that truly make a difference to them. This is where I find your suggestion fascinating.

    I am intuitively drawn to the idea of running a site asking people what can be done for them – what they need from all levels of government and even from non government organisations and fellow community members. My problem with this is a nagging fear that they would not join in unless they were convinced that all the relevant decision makers were listening. Our sites are all hosted on behalf of decision makers so naturally cover issues in the gambit of those organisations. I am struggling to see how we could host a site that covered all 3 levels of Government in this country without it falling prey to that most common of internet forum issues – that nobody is actually there listening who can do anything about it.

    This might well work in a country like the UK with fewer levels of Government and local authorities that are more empowered. If you are in a position to work on a pilot with us we would love to give it a go. It would certainly be an interesting process.

    Meanwhile thanks for showing interest in what we do.

    Also I notice that this site is Leeds based. As a life long Leeds Utd fan I am celebrating with you this week!

    Cheers

    Matt

    • I think that what you have done is a great start. But as you have indicated we are on a journey helping people to participate in local government. Attempts here to do the same are even more pitiful – in part because of poor technology but also because of a deep antipathy in the council to really use these sorts of channels to engage. http://www.leedsinitiative.org/forum.aspx?id=224&g=topics&f=3380

      You are right about the who is listening point – which is why I think such sites would need to be very local/hyperlocal and be embedded in a process that educates people on the real meaning of community and the kind of giver’s gain philosophy. In my work I am helping people set up real forums for mutual assistance which may later develop an online presence. The challenges of building confidentiality and safety so that people are able to really open themselves up to help up are immense.

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