A Decade of Digital Engagement: Inner West Council

For the past decade, Sydney’s Inner West community has consistently expressed a strong desire to provide input into Council decisions. Since 2009, the use of the EngagementHQ platform has been crucial to meet that need.

Senior Engagement Specialist, Annie Coulthard, says the local community welcomed the option of digital engagement from the start.

“Our community is highly educated, politically aware and adopts technology early, so online engagement was readily embraced when we first used EngagementHQ in 2009.”

The digital journey began with the former Marrickville Council, and then continued with Inner West Council following local government amalgamations in 2016. (Inner West was formed through the merger of Marrickville, Ashfield and Leichhardt councils.)

Today, the platform provides a living record of 11 years of local online engagement, documenting Council decision-making through more than 580 current and past engagement projects.

“We’ve worked hard to build the ‘Your Say’ brand at Council events over the years, demonstrating how online engagement works on ipads and phones, and registering residents to the site,’” Annie says.

Annie is part of a centralized Engagement Team at Inner West Council that works across the organization to strengthen local democratic participation through structured engagement practices.

Under Council’s Engagement Framework, every project requiring engagement has a dedicated ‘Your Say’ page, and the Engagement Team works with teams across Council to embed an online feedback option at the heart of every project.

“EngagementHQ enables Council to demonstrate its commitment to this consistent approach. It provides a permanent directory of projects undertaken, and a record of how consultation methods have evolved over time,” Annie says.

It started with an online hub…and then grew

That initial project in 2009 involved creating a set of online tools to help develop Marrickville Council’s first community strategic plan. Council then used the platform again in 2011 to seek feedback on a new community hub. The project had a number of engagement stages and evolved over time into a state-of-the-art public library and community facility, which was built and opened to the public in 2019.

In 2012, Council entered into an ongoing relationship with Bang The Table and delivered 16 digital engagement projects that year through EngagementHQ. Since then, as the engagement team and function grew, the number of online engagements and their scope has increased as well.

“We carefully research each online functions the platform offers so we can recommend the most appropriate tool for each engagement opportunity,” Annie says.

“Every new online engagement tool we’ve tried has been embraced by the community and we’ve had some great success with functions such as Places and Stories. Our community clearly wants to be engaged, but it’s also a very diverse population and Council’s Engagement Framework has always recognized that methods should be tailored to their needs.”

“Access to engagement and inclusivity is at the heart of what we do, so we’ve continued to provide multiple ways to engage – in writing, in person, on the phone – for each project we deliver.”

Why community input matters

two people looking at a phone

As often happens with meaningful engagement, outcomes can be surprising — as was the case when the Engagement Team worked with Traffic colleagues to check in with the community about potential neighborhood parking changes.

“Internal evidence showed an interest in introducing resident parking permits, but the outcome of the digital engagement showed the majority of residents actually didn’t want changes introduced,” Annie says.

“This was a great win for those communities who would have been greatly impacted by the changes.”

Helping strengthen social cohesion through COVID-19

Most recently, the Engagement Team collaborated with Council’s Library and History Services to collate a COVID-19 community archive of stories, anecdotes, artworks and images from Inner West citizens. Annie says the project used the Stories tool on EngagementHQ and received 193 submissions over four weeks.

“The community really embraced the functionality of the site to upload material such as photos, videos, artworks and poems. This was a beautiful community participation project during a tough time, increasing social cohesion and allowing Council to create a permanent community asset.”

Data and decision-making

The data Council receives through ‘Your Say Inner West’ has proven extremely valuable to the organization in guiding decisions.

“The data is provided directly to the elected representatives in an official report to Council to inform a decision at a Council meeting, or it’s provided to staff to help develop a policy, plan or program,” Annie says.

“We also collate an Engagement Outcomes Report at the end of almost every project, post it on the site and email it to everyone who provided input to close the loop.”

EngagementHQ’s flexibility is key

For Inner West, the ability to update a project page over a long period of time through multiple stages is invaluable, as are the Excel reports and the platform’s text analysis tool.

Annie says the customer service and mentorship provided by Bang The Table is also deeply appreciated.

“We’re grateful to Dan Popping who supported us in delivering a survey to both staff and community on Council’s engagement practice in 2019. This was used to inform an update of Council’s Engagement Framework and improve a team work plan for 2020. Some findings we are still looking at, such as how to significantly improve the community’s understanding of local democracy and the engagement process.”

“Not that long ago we renovated the site and moved to the Bondi theme, which allowed us to refine some of our digital practices and update the ‘Your Say’ brand. We appreciate the continual improvement of tools and functions by Bang The Table and the support we receive to provide a better service to our community.”

Annie’s advice for newcomers to EngagementHQ

“Place digital engagement within a comprehensive engagement framework that has access and inclusion considerations at its heart.”

A closer look at Inner West Council’s centralized engagement strategy

The Inner West Council Engagement Team is responsible for developing, implementing, and evaluating Council’s adopted Engagement Framework, policy, guidelines, and tools. Here, Annie offers insights into how the team works:

  • We partner with multidisciplinary project teams and within service units to plan, deliver, and evaluate best practice engagement for projects across the organization.
  • We lead engagement for Council’s key corporate projects, such as large infrastructure upgrades and the Community Strategic Plan.
  • We have a risk management focus to engagement planning and stakeholder mapping. We provide staff engagement monitoring and risk mitigation advice throughout project lifetimes.
  • We lead, plan, execute, and evaluate engagement events including outreach stalls at Council’s flagship events and public meetings.
  • We oversee Local Democracy Groups, the Local Groups Register and the Resident Association Small Grants Program
  • We manage the delivery and reporting of Council’s Community Satisfaction Survey to inform strategic planning and service delivery.
  • We are responsible for Council’s online engagement hub ‘Your Say Inner West’.
  • Beyond direct engagement work, we also review general Council project correspondence and communications for consistency.

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