Annual public engagement planning

Successful public engagement planning doesn’t happen by accident. It requires good quality strategic thinking, internal collaboration, time and resources.

If the last year proved nothing else it was that a year can pass in a blink of an eye. Good planning (and good public engagement) takes time. January is a great time to take a breather from the frantic pace that overwhelms the lead-up to the year’s end, to think about the year ahead. I asked around the office for team tips to help make the next financial year a great year for online public engagement…

1. Planning a public engagement calendar

Our number one tip is to talk to all of your departmental heads about their plans for the year. Chances are that they won’t know about every single project they are likely to have to deliver, but they will have a pretty good idea about a lot of them. As a first step, make a list of all of the various projects.

Wherever possible, lock down the likely consultation dates (the month will do at this stage). This will give you a pretty reasonable idea of the burden of consultation you are placing on your broad community.

As a third step, try to identify the key stakeholder groups for each project; be they age, sex, suburb, or interest based.

By mapping these groups against your calendar, you should start to see whether and when you are placing an unreasonable expectation of community stakeholder input into the various plans, reviews, and programs. You’ll also start to see gaps in the consultation calendar, and potentially gaps in the breadth of your overall consultation reach; for example, are you engaging with younger migrant communities at any point during the year?

2. Know your objectives and audience

Getting to grips with the “who, why, what and how many” questions is next on our list. This is where the detailed planning takes place. The very first question to ask when you are planning any consultation process is “what do we need to know from our stakeholders?” If the answer is “nothing”, then we would suggest that you take a moment to reflect on whether you should be consulting at all, or whether, the consultation process is perhaps and exercise in ticking the box.

The second question to ask is “who is affected by this project? Who wins and who loses?” These are the critical stakeholders. You’ll also want to think about who can influence the project (they may be neither a beneficiary nor a loser). This is no small task when you’re considering the impact of organisational wide strategic plans. A LOT of people will be affected in one way or another: Which is why it is so very important to extract those (often very well disguised) impacts and put them front and centre during the consultation process.

Once you have an idea of exactly who is impacted and therefore most likely to be interested enough to engage around the project, you can make an estimation of the actual size of the stakeholder population. (ASIDE: I once worked with a group of environmental planners who were absolutely convinced without the slightest hesitation that EVERYONE would be interested in their riparian corridors policy. Reality bites.)

Once you have a clear idea of the size of your stakeholder population, you can set some internal goals (and manage expectations) regarding the likely quantum of input. It’s only by going through this process that you will have a framework against which to measure the “success” of the engagement process. By agreeing as an organisation what your expectations are regarding engagement breadth – i.e. how many people you at least want to find their way to your site – you will be in a much better position to make some decisions about the quantum of resources you are willing to apply to promoting the consultation opportunity.

3. Create a public engagement brand

Our third tip, and this is a great lesson learnt from a number of our local government clients, is to create a strong brand around all of your public engagement activities. Most importantly the branding should be reinforced BOTH on- and AND off-line. “Point of sale” style collateral on-site at the location of places, spaces and “things” you are consulting about should reinforce this brand, e.g. parks where you are preparing management plans; buildings that have a development application under consideration; and gathering points where you are thinking about installing public art. The City of Adelaide has done this well with the creation of the Your Say Adelaide branding – with different colours representing different themes.

4. Planning your public engagement promotion strategy

I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, if you build it, they won’t necessarily come. The greatest fear of clients new to the online engagement space before they get started is, “what if we get overwhelmed?” The greatest concern around a month after launch is “how do we drive more traffic to our online engagement hub?” In many cases, it seems that fear prevents organisations from publicising the opportunity to have one’s voice heard.

I have another theory on this front, and that is that it is not at all uncommon for the people who look after the public engagement (read consultation) process to sit in a different office (or a different building) from the people who are trained and very good at marketing and promotions. So the two groups don’t collaborate particularly well. There is also a natural tension between those who are most concerned about “listening” to the community and those who are most concerned with sharing information and protecting the organisational brand.

The truth is that for public engagement to work effectively, these skills need to work hand in glove. A great listener (public engagement practitioner) does not necessarily a good promoter make, and vice versa. So, hunt down your communications and marketing team and get them involved in planning and executing your promotions campaign for your new public engagement brand (that they have developed for you).

5. Planning to engage your public continuously

Take a look at your engagement calendar, if there are any holes, fill them up. There are always things you can be asking your community about. If it’s feasible, move the consultation periods around a little so that there is always something for people to do when they come to your consultation hub. And try to make sure there is overlap between projects so that each benefits from the publicity around the other. If there are no major projects on the boil, see if you can’t move things around a little bit, or find something else to start a conversation about. Big gaps in the calendar give the community a chance to forget about you and slows down your rate of acquisition of new participants.

A number of organisations have also set up continuous feedback tools on their consultations hubs – the Q&A and Guestbook – to provide a mechanism for transparency and feedback during the gaps between more formal consultation periods.

6. Planning to engage diverse public’s

It is reasonable to assume that people (the community) are more likely to be engaged by issues that they have a direct personal interest in, and less by issues from which they can see no personal impact arising. This is an important basic premise for building your participant database. A consultation about a special rates levy (at local government level) is unlikely, for example, to attract much interest from renters. A consultation about your off-leash dog walking policy will garner enormous volumes of interest from dog lovers and dog haters, but not much from everybody in between. A consultation about the development of a local skate park is unlikely to gather too much interest from the over 60s. And so it goes. All which means that if you want to build a diverse participant database, you need to consult on a diversity of projects. When it comes time to consult on a subject of broad local interest, you will have the best possibility of gathering feedback from a broad cross-section of the community.

7. Planning to engage strategically

There is a temptation when launching into the world of online engagement to want to start low key by consulting on a “low risk” project. The reasoning goes that you can test your internal systems and test the community’s interest in the technology. This strategy is often reinforced by a lack of promotion (in order to keep the numbers manageable). The problem with this logic is that it is setting the online engagement methodology up for failure. It is much like the old school strategy of putting the project documentation into the library, advertising the fact on page 35 of the local rag, and then being relieved when nobody had anything to say! If very few people care and even less people know about the consultation, how many people are really going to provide their feedback?

The best way to test online consultation as an engagement methodology with your stakeholder community is to start a conversation about something controversial; find a topic with a bit of heat in it! This will drive participation and grow your participant database quickly. It will demonstrate clearly for all to see that the community are more than willing to engage with you online. It will also demonstrate to community participants that there is more than one opinion in the marketplace for ideas about a project; which, in turn, demonstrates that you have a difficult job to make sense of all the various positions.

8. Planning mobile public engagement

In 2013 visits to all EngagementHQ sites from mobile devices (phones and tablets) rose from 11.6% to 19%. This trend shows no sign of abating. Early this year we released a mobile-friendly version of EngagementHQ. We think it’s pretty good, but it will get better throughout 2014 in response to your feedback. We want you to take advantage of this design work by engaging the community “in the field” and “in the moment”. Think about the kind of issues the community can engage within two or three minutes on the train, tram or bus ride between home and work. Or think about sending your team into the field with their phones and/or tablets to have unstructured conversations or structured interviews with people who are actually using the facilities you are planning for and around. Spot polls and simple surveys are the tip of the iceberg. Remember, once you have the participants in your EngagementHQ site, you have the opportunity to invite them into a multitude of other conversations in the future (subject to their approval of course).

9. Responsive public engagement

Keep a watching eye on the subjects that come up again and again in both on- and off-line consultations (and through any continuous feedback mechanisms). There is nothing to stop you from holding conversations around these issues at any time in the name of continuous improvement. It also demonstrates responsiveness, transparency and an organisational willingness to learn.

10. Fresh public engagement

And finally, keep the consultations fresh. This can mean a whole lot of different things to different people and circumstances. One suggestion is to change up the feedback tools you use throughout the consultation period. Consider launching consultations using different tools so that each new project engages your participants in a learning process. Another suggestion is to make copious use of images and videos. As Pip (in the office) says, “Pictures make for great user bait” and videos are even better. You only have a few moments to convince your audience to stick around on your site, so less words and more pictures are required. A nice bold “call to action” is the order of the day. The detail can go behind links. And… please try to include pictures of people. Advertisers include people in the vast majority of their campaigns for a reason; it creates a connection that holds one’s attention.

Photo Credits: Shelly – DIY Planner

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