4 stories of successful online community engagement

Yesterday I presented at the Connected Government Conference in Canberra on the broad topic of local government and social media successful online engagement stories. I did so without once mentioning Facebook or Twitter! Below is the slide deck and full text from my notes for successful online community engagement.

For the next 30 minutes I’m going to share three (possibly four) quick stories with you about some of the great work being done by three people who I think are working at the cutting edge of online community engagement practice in local government around the country.

Each story has a local hero or champion, a significant hurdle and at least one universal lesson that I hope you will find useful.

Slide 2

Please feel free to interrupt me. I am very happy to take questions throughout.

Slide 3

If you’re feeling shy, or you think of something late, then please feel free to hit me up on Twitter @crispin_btt.

Slide 4

First a quote to provide some context for my stories.

“Qui habet aures audiendi audiat.”


“Those who have ears to hear, hear.”

More commonly reinterpreted, less poetically but also less ambiguously as;

“We have two ears and one mouth (so that we might listen twice as much as we speak.)”

This quote is central to the work that we, at Bang the Table, do. We take it as a self evident truth.

It is the fundamental principle that underpins our business and product focus.

Bang the Table’s focus is on helping organisations to listen harder to what their communities have to say – particularly in the context of public policy development

We do not generally concern ourselves with organisational brand, key messaging, and communications – although these are all useful (and sometimes vital) to good community engagement outcomes, our focus has always been on making it easier to listen harder, rather than speak louder.

So, if these stories have a common theme, it is that listening takes great effort and skill. If it didn’t, everybody would be doing it well.

Slide 5 – Creating a culture of engagement at Adelaide City Council

The first story is about Dan Popping, Manager of Community Engagement, at Adelaide City Council.

Dan has taken Adelaide on a journey to deep and consistent engagement across all Council portfolios.

In the past, the city had undertaken some high profile and very attractive online engagement work.

It got a lot of publicity, but it didn’t produce the kind of content that the strategic planners needed to help inform their decision making.

Dan wanted to change that. So he began a process involving many many conversations to convince the city to become a listening organisation.

He was confronted by the usual inertia that any large organisation struggles with, as well as more specific, but not unusual or insurmountable concerns by the IT and Marketing and Comms teams.

And so began a process of many conversations to both assuage those concerns and to collaborate on the development of strategies that would meet the sometimes competing needs of different business units.

The answer was twofold.

First, the creation of a universal brand for all of Council’s engagement activities. Your Say Adelaide was the result. It now appears on all of Council’s print and digital engagement collateral. The colours vary depending on the nature of the issue – for example, green for parks and gardens, purple for heritage. Critically, this work was lead by the Marketing and Communications team, with Dan as the internal client. This is how Community Engagement and Communications and Marketing should work together… hand in glove. It is, unfortunately, still all too rare.

Second, the creation of central online portal for all of Council’s engagement activities. Unlike most organisations, this is not restricted to a small sample of Council’s consultation projects. ALL of Council’s face to face engagement exercises are supported by an online component. Online engagement is thus embedded in Council’s workflows as standard operating procedure. I do not know of another organisation that takes this approach as of today.

The IT issues were overcome by using our SaaS product, EngagementHQ. This took the pressure of the IT team to deliver and manage a new suite of functionality. The IT team simply had to ensure that our offering met all of the technical specifications required by Council.

With 104 projects, the issues cover the full gamut of the City’s responsibilities from the redevelopment of Adelaide Cricket Ground to the introduction of new parking fee structures for the city centre.

There are lots of universal lessons in this story:

First up, embedding a culture of engagement in an organisations processes, workflows and branding reaps results.
Second, comm’s and marketing and community engagement need to work hand in glove. They should be seen as two (distinctive) parts to a whole.
Third, IT needs to ensure the SaaS product is competent to deliver the results Council is looking for, it does not (and in my view should not) need to deliver the solution itself.

Slide 6 – Integrating online and offline community engagement at Royal Park

The City of Melbourne as been in the online engagement space for a long time.

Over the years different people have really pushed the boundaries by experimenting with different models and technologies.

The Future Melbourne project is often held up as something of a landmark in Australian local government practice for its use of Wiki’s, following which, the City went into its shell for a while.

We started working with different business unit a couple of years ago on a variety of ad hoc projects – a new multipurpose community centre in Carlton, an tree management strategy (branded as the “Urban Forest Conversation”), and an interesting project about the handover of a large parcel of land as part of a much larger park.

It’s this later project that I am going to focus on today.

“Return to Royal Park” was a collaboration between the City of Melbourne and the Vic Department of Health.

The project was managed by Cathy Kiss, a senior parks planner with the Parks and Rec unit at Council.

It was always going to be contentious because the local neighbourhood residence had a very particular set of expectations about what should happen, a very strong sense of entitlement, great personal connections, and unlimited energy.

The project basically revolved around the incorporation of the old Royal Children’s Hospital site into the much larger Royal Park precinct in the northern suburbs of the city. The precinct contains contains the city Zoo, lots of playing fields, lots of open parkland, and a fair chunk of reasonably intact bushland.

It was contentious because, for reasons of history, many of the immediate neighbours of the site had a strong expectation of a pure bushland outcome. Others were not convinced that this was the best use of the land given the known community needs for alternate public recreation spaces.

The engagement strategy integrated very strong off-line and online components.

Off-line, there were lots of personal face to face meetings with individual stakeholders. Lots of workshops. Lots of site visits – including youth engagement by Aboriginal elders with kids from a local school.

On-line, there was a multi-topic discussion forum and surveys. Both were run in two part, pre-draft; to gather ideas about matter of interest that should inform the broad design, and post-draft to test the ideas that the landscape designers had come up with. Survey data was also collected directly into the online surveys in the field using iPads.

This multi-pronged approach worked for two reasons.

The intensive face to face engagement respected the role of the local neighbourhood community.

The online consultation provided a much broader context to inform those discussions and put the local needs into a much broader context. A lot of the ideas collected online challenged strongly held local positions, but because they were being brought up by the community, rather than Council, it was much easier to throw them into the mix for consideration. The discussions were still fraught, but they got there in the end with a plan that worked all round.

The site had around 14,000 unique visitors, 330 forum participants, 6,500 document downloads. The majority of participants were from the local area, Parkville, North Melbourne and Brunswick – which are in the immediate environs, suggesting that people where either unwilling or unable to attend face to face meetings were very happy to get online.

The lesson from this… online consultation works better when it is supported by offline consultation and vice versa.

Slide 7 – Creating rich content for deeper engagement at the City of Sydney

Yvette Andrews is the manager of Strategic Community Engagement at the City of Sydney.

She has embraced the online space with gusto and, in my opinion, revolutionised the way the City does its business.

Over the past 18 months, Council has run online consultations about some 20+ projects, attracting 70,000 unique visitors.

I’m going to focus on the 21st Century George Street project, which is all about introducing light rail, pedestrianisation and bicycles to a long stretch of George street.

The City of Sydney, under the leadership of many mayors of varying political persuasions, has a track record of pushing the boundaries with the NSW Government when it comes to the urban fabric of the city. The State was not initially enamoured of the idea and neither to, were the very many car users and user groups of George street.

I can’t speak to the face to face strategies, but I was very impressed with their online strategy.

Yvette created a online consultation space with a lot of visual content, with two feature videos; one demonstrating George street’s past and another its possible future; along with a whole suite of montage images showing George street as a pedestrian walkway. They were so lifelike that I had to double check they were montages.

As well as uploading all of the usual informational content that you would expect – documents, fact sheets, FAQs, key dates and external links – Yvette used two online tools, one to gather stories and the other to gather questions.

The Q&A was used as an “issues management” tool because there tends to be a whole lot of misinformation around a project like this. It provides a very simple mechanism for quickly identifying the kinds of issues the community are interested in on a daily basis to help inform communications strategies. It is also far better than pre-empting the kinds of issues you think the community is going to be interested in by creating a long list of FAQs… only 0.5% of site visitors look at them. The Q&A is interactive, engaging and transparent.

The Guestbook was used to gather general feedback about the concept without encourage the sort of debate you often see in forums. Two of my favourite comments, and the reason I love democracy, were:

Rich – “Looks great but PLEASE no bike lanes or bikes, most bicyclists ignore road sign and lights and are a menace to pedestrians and other road users.”

Followed quickly by:

Willo56 – “I would only ever agree to this if bicycles had free use of the area…”

The lesson, extra effort is worth all the effort. You can’t expect to get away with the old consultation model of dumping project documentation in the library and expecting people to read every last word. To get the best result, you need accessible rich media content. You also need simple and various feedback mechanisms.

Slide 8 – Online participatory budgeting at the City of Melville

Finally, a quick one to finish.

Callum Prior is a community development officer at the City of Melville in the southern suburbs of Perth.

And by all reports he’s a crackerjack!

Callum came into local government by way of music tour management. And you can tell.

One of the hardest things to do in public policy formulation and community engagement is to get young people involved.

So Council put together a great little community development fund called the Robin Hood Project.

$100,000 for the community to spend on projects of its design and choosing.

A lot of work was put into face to face processes to get the community thinking about the kinds of projects they would like funded.

Then council launched into the wonderful world of participatory online budgeting.

Council used our Budget Allocator tool to create a long list of projects with fairly detailed descriptions and budgets against each, and then asked the community to nominate up to $100,000 worth of projects of their choosing. The tool lets the community easily see when they have gone over budget. It also collects comments about individual projects and the overall process.

So far there has been 1375 respondents. Top of the list is “Plant, nurture, enjoy trees for Roy Neal Reserve, Willagee” at all of $2,000.

My favorite comments…

“I think they are really great and we should be able to vote every year on projects that people in the community come up with.”

“I think this is a good way to get everyone together and improve Melville.”

There are lots of lessons from this online project. Here are just two:

First, the very best way to get young people involved in thinking about a project, place or program is through co-creation. There is a preference for action and creativity over conversation and theory, particularly meta-theoretical theory that dominates a lot of public policy thinking.

Second, online community budgeting is about much more than money. It’s a great was to get the community thinking about tradeoffs and preferences and prioritisation. It’s also a great community development tool in its own right.

Slide 9

And this is a screen shot of a few of the projects…

Slide 10 – The wrap

To summarise the universal lessons to help turn your Council or Agency into a Listening Organisation:

  1. Listening is not often the natural posture of a government organisations.
  2. Good listening is hard. If it wasn’t, everyone would be doing it well already.
  3. Adoption of a listening culture is transformative.
  4. Creating a listening culture within and across and organisation is a process rather than an outcome. It takes time, persistence, continuity, systems and commitment.
  5. Embed online engagement deeply within organisational processes to get the best possible outcomes.
  6. Marketing and Communications and Community Engagement work best when they work hand in glove.
  7. Integrate online and offline engagement to get the best out of both strategies.
  8. Put extra effort into the digital collateral to get broader engagement.
  9. 9. Think about bespoke tools to support particular types of projects.

And that’s me.

I’m very happy to take questions.

Photo Credits: Dimitris Papazimouris

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