Tam: So Rachel, can you tell me exactly what lessons you feel you’ve come away with from using EngagementHQ – first with Waverley and then with Marrickville Council?
Rachel: To be honest, I think that every Council will have a different experience in using the forum, depending upon the relationship that they hold with their community and how their community perceives them.
At Marrickville for example, our branding reaches out across many Council sectors. All of our service providers wear uniforms in the very distinctive purple and orange of the Marrickville Council. This includes gardeners, street sweepers, road workers; you name it- they wear it!
This helps out in quite a few ways. One of which is that the community become very aware of the services that the Council are serving and they know where their money is going. The outcome of this is that the community know firstly what is in Council’s control and secondly they can see that their Council is doing a pretty good job – I mean, they can see it in the streets, right?
In terms of the forum itself, I found that the outcomes were quite different because of the way we framed the questions.
At Waverley, we framed some of the questions in what I can now see was actually kind of negative and led people down a quite negative thought pathway.
For example we’d ask questions like “what are the worst things about living in your area?” and naturally, it invited a negative response. We heard a lot of complaints, some that were within Council’s control and many others that weren’t.
Armed with such experience, Rachel took a different angle when engaging the Marrickville community. Rachel began to frame her questions “positively”; the result? A highly engaged community that was far more constructive in their community opinion.
Tam: Could you fill me in with an example of a positively framed question?
Rachel: It’s kind of simple when you think about it, but it makes a big difference. If you were to ask your community “what’s wrong with your area” then the community will happily go ahead and list all of your faults.
However, if instead you ask “What are the major areas that you might like to see improved”, well, people will put their minds to solving the problem; try to work out what is actually in and out of Council control and try to constructively answer how the area could be improved in the future.
It’s also important to consider that it’s the quality and the tone of the forum right from the start that will colour the consultation throughout the rest of its online time. They have a “roll on effect”. It’s worth putting some thought into that right at the start to get your consultation off to the best start it can.
Tam: How would you suggest Council best tackle a situation like consulting the community on a rate rise?
Rachel: I think that in situations like these it’s best to provide as much information around the issue as you possibly can. You could even consider pulling together some specific focus groups in the initial stages to help shape the questions in the best way. Then put them out to the broader community. It’s vital, that in situations like this, where the outcome can have quite an impact, that the question be framed in the best way.
Tam: There’s obviously a lot of information that’s involved with asking for input on your strategic plans; how would you recommend providing that information to the public?
Rachel: I wouldn’t recommend that a Council upload their draft plans and simply ask people to comment on the details. .
From my experience, not a lot of people are going to read the background pages or even download them. I personally think that its good to include as much graphic material as possible, whether as photos or diagrams or as videos.
Tam: What do you see as being the intrinsic value of the forums?
Rachel: People come to the forums with an opinion and they come to voice that opinion.
It gives me some insight into what’s going on in the community’s mind. For example, say the latest area statistics say that crime levels are down, but the opinion online is that people are still pretty worried about crime in the area, then the Council knows that the main issue is as much about people’s feelings and perceptions as it is about statistics.
By burrowing down and finding out how people really think and feel about their community, Council can prioritise where money is best spent and also work out how people’s perception of what is acceptable has changed in accordance to various Council initiatives.
Tam: Did you have much to say on the forums themselves? Did you or a project manager jump online and join the conversation?
Rachel: I think that a Council could intervene on a forum if they can see there are facts or other information being bandied about which is completely inaccurate.
Otherwise, it’s good to sit back and take their ideas on board. It can be very disheartening to residents if they feel that Council is critiquing their ideas straight away. So rather than jumping online, you could think about increasing your messages elsewhere.
For example, a resident might say – “Hey , you know what would be a great idea? Why don’t you put up some signage here – or deliver books there or” … whatever.
If, as a Council member you say, “Well, we’ve already done that, or we put that into place two years ago and it didn’t work”, then you close down that path of communication and potentially do the same to the relationship in a very short amount of time.
By providing the community with a place to present their ideas, like the online forums, it helps the community feel that they own an idea and are getting it seen by decision makers. The forums also have more than likely increased community confidence in local government more generally too. They like having a say at a time that’s convenient to them – at a time they feel like it.
The job of the community member is to give their opinion and ideas. And our job is to work out what can and should be implemented in the interests of the entire community.
Tam: How important do you think it is to give information back to the community about the consultation?
Rachel: No matter what the consultation, we would all do well to feed the results back to the community and let them know what happened with their comments and their ideas.
I think that we can too often forget that the community needs to know how their input has changed the Council’s direction or at least given shape to it.
Tam: And what ways have you personally found work best in providing feedback to the community?
Rachel: People feel respected when you take the time out to let them know how their time and input has been used.
I think that using a variety of ways to feed the information back to the community is better than using just the one method.
We use our quarterly newsletters to feed the information back and that’s been very popular. We also take out space in the local papers once a fortnight and at other times on a more ad hoc basis when the need arises.
We also work alongside local journos who write up actual articles on the issues on a fairly regular basis.
I tend to think that the more ways you can find to feed back the information to the community, the better relationship you’re going to form with your community and the more people are going to come back to offer their opinion down the track.
Tam: Promotion is a question we get asked a lot about. How did you promote your consultation to your community?
Rachel: At Marrickville, we used a lot of different methods, like setting up stalls at community events and using community newsletters. We also gave away free packets of seeds, which had demographic info on them about the community. The seeds themselves were of herbs used in the cooking of different cultures living in the area, so they were promotional but were also good from a social and environmental perspective.
While having your staff up to date with what’s going on in the consultation is obviously important, the staff that are involved in processing rates notices or are in strategy or report writing aren’t so much on the phone and won’t be able to talk to the general public as much about it.
That’s why it’s worthwhile linking in to your existing external networks to help promote your site and consultation. I guess I’m thinking about older people, schools, and local businesses. We’ve seen a big spike occur in the forum uptake just after staff in different areas, have sent out information and links to the site to their networks.
At Waverley Council, our phone hold message would promote the forum site and we were also lucky enough to get some free radio time. Towards the final stages of the consultation process, we even hired a spruiker to spread the message in one of the main malls. It actually worked quite well!
Tam: So, final question, what do you believe lies at the heart of successful engagement?
Rachel: Trust essentially. Trust between the community and the Council certainly goes a long way to getting constructive opinion from the community.
I think that you can build that trust by providing good information and by regularly consulting with your community. Then they know that what you’re doing is genuine and that the time spent contributing to a consultation process can actually change the future.
The forums act as a straight forward recording of community opinion. People can see straight up that we aren’t fudging the engagement process.
To be honest, it’s possible to feel worn down at times and get cynical. But I guess I’m an old fashioned public servant. I do this job because I literally want to serve the public. And I think that most people who work in Council do feel that way. Of course we get tired and we don’t do everything right all the time, but I value being able to contribute to the community. If you can somehow communicate that to the community, that council is on their side and working in their interests, then it is much more likely that your engagement processes will go well.