Three principles for engagement that works – for clients and communities
Genuinely meaningful or a box ticking exercise? Community engagement conjures up different perspectives for those in touch with the process.
Many involved in place-making rightly see it as an important and necessary step in shaping proposed developments that reflect an area’s needs.
But some people often voice frustration with a process they see as opaque, shrouded in mystery and weighted against them.
This puts communicators in an important position when managing an engagement process. They are not going to please everyone. Some are implacably opposed to development in their area and will mount social media and leafletting campaigns that generate lots of noise and can destabilise projects.
What to do when this happens?
The starting point for us is to recognise that if organisations are engaging communities about anything that’s happening in their area, they must be prepared to listen to the feedback. That includes those who don’t agree with what’s proposed.
These points are set out in the Gunning Principles, outlining what good consultation looks like.
This is about more than ‘selling the benefits’ to persuade people. It’s about giving communities space to raise issues and responding to them. It is essential to building confidence and trust in the engagement process.
Having supported projects with capacity for more than 12,000 homes in recent years, we’ve shaped our engagement approach around some core principles. These in turn flow from understanding the areas where we’re working.
Understand your audience
We take an insight-led, creative, human approach to engagement. This involves looking at available data, speaking to stakeholders and spending time in the area before starting work.
These crucial steps often shape our messaging and approach. On one project we supported in Somerset, for example, researching local economic data found most local people owned their homes outright, and were aged 45 and older.
Reassuring them about noise and construction traffic, while reminding them that the proposals would provide decent homes and jobs for their children became important messages that resonated locally.
Wedded to our commitment to understanding communities, we have three principles running through our engagement work.
Our three principles for engagement
#1 Clarity – of principle, content and direction. We hate jargon and are always straight with people. Our team includes former journalists and professional writers who pride themselves on making complex information accessible and understandable.
We never use phrases like ‘translocating’ where ‘moving’ will do. And we don’t talk about ‘units’ or ‘stock’ instead of ‘homes’.
We appreciate, also, that some people will want technical information and we will provide this in ways they can access. But simplicity and clarity will always be our default.
Our engagement platform for a significant new community at Wisloe in Gloucestershire is a good example of where technical detail is supported with clear information. Tens of thousands of visitors have used the site since its launch, with hundreds of people signing up for updates.
And we are very proud of feedback from consultation events saying that our content was the best that local partners had seen.
#2 Connecting communities. We go where communities are, not where we want them to be. Online, offline and in person, our teams engage at every level – from community events to ministerial meetings.
Recognising that most people will find out about our project online, our websites play a key role in supporting engagement. Colleagues also lead webinars, which attracted hundreds of people and generated more than 100 questions in one project we supported.
This is blended with a creative approach to engage communities in person. Street stalls, community events and visiting people at home are all part of the mix here.
Will this replace traditional community hall events? While planning authorities expect them, there’s no sign of this happening across the board soon. But the task for engagement professionals is to find methods that people will want to use, now and for the foreseeable.
#3 Two-way communications. We don’t just broadcast, we listen. And we use communities’ feedback to shape better outcomes.
We’re using online tools to capture people’s feedback on what they like and don’t like about an area at an early stage. On one project we’re supporting, we collected more than 270 comments about an area on a website we built.
This is supported with digital outreach, media relations and conversations with local stakeholders.
We also use social listening to get a sense of what people are saying about a project, brand or topics in an area (like housing in Bristol, for example). Drop me a line if you’d like to know more about how this could support your project.
Building trust in what you’re trying to achieve
Honed over years of working on complex, high profile projects, this approach helps local authorities, developers and housing providers engage meaningfully, by understanding and responding to community feedback.
In febrile times, we believe that these principles are integral to building trust and confidence in clients’ engagement.
That’s not to say that everyone will agree with what’s proposed. But in demonstrating that you’ve engaged in the right way and taken comments on board, you will increase your chances of a positive outcome.
We feel very fortunate to support clients who share this belief with us. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how engagement is working for you.
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