For many councils in Australia, developing a community strategic plan involves the largest scale engagement the organization will ever undertake.
Digital engagement platforms have increasingly played an important role in these community-strengthening initiatives, where the aim is to ensure all local voices can be heard.
That was the case for Willoughby City Council in 2018, when the EngagementHQ platform, Have Your Say Willoughby, provided a central hub of information during the development of Our Future Willoughby 2028.
Consolidating data during multi-faceted engagement
The platform helped capture and consolidate more than 6,000 comments, thoughts, and ideas from the Lower North Shore of Sydney community during Council’s multi-faceted strategic community planning initiative.
Willoughby City Council Community Engagement Specialist, Tania Stark, says Council delivered a range of activities across the city through a phased approach, with the support of ThinkPlace engagement consultants.
“The process involved the community generating ideas and then validating and discussing the broad themes generated in phase one. We then undertook a gamification symposium to identify the outcomes and goals people deemed most important and gathered our collective thoughts to come up with strategies for how these goals be might be achieved.”
Tania says Council received another 700 individual comments from community members who participated during the public exhibition period and contributed ideas.
“Bang The Table was very helpful in setting up a hub page on Have your Say Willoughby to connect the various project pages used through the phased process. We also used the hub to connect all of the complex and technical planning strategies for housing, local centers, and industrial lands in the lead up to potential development control changes, providing a single source of information for our community.”
A community preference for digital engagement
This year, Willoughby City Council celebrates a decade of online community connectivity through EngagementHQ, and today has nearly 7,000 registered online participants.
“We’ve asked our community how they would like to engage with us and a majority indicated a preference to engage digitally in their own time,” Tania says.
“It’s not for everybody, of course, but having a dedicated platform gives us and users oversight across all our consultation projects and consistency in our engagement approach. Teamed with engaging interactions in places where people congregate such as libraries, local centers, the mall, and existing events, and good communication and social media campaigns, it’s a great way to maximize participation in engagement activities.”
The flexibility offered by Have Your Say Willoughby has also helped strengthen community confidence in Council.
“Our most recent perception survey found the Willoughby Council Index Score was above the benchmark for keeping our community informed on decisions of interest to them,” Tania says.
“We have evolved with the emerging engagement preference of our community and adapted to a suite of online engagement techniques. Combined with extensive social media campaigns, our community is more aware of Council’s efforts to encourage participation in decision-making.”
As well as participating in surveys, locals are increasingly comfortable using the mapping tool for place-making, and uploading photos on topics such as streetscape design and car parking.
Council staff members have also found unique ways to interact with Have Your Say participants. “Recently, one of our officers involved in a bicycle route improvement plan filmed himself riding the route and uploaded the footage to the platform,” Tania says. “He showed the traffic and where and how calming measures would make a difference. It was a great way to explain the project on the ground.”
Staying connected during the pandemic
Tania says EngagementHQ has helped Council stay connected to its community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The current situation has been an opportunity to expand and make it easier for our community to participate in digital engagement. With the temporary loss of local newspapers, it’s been more important than ever to be able to reach out to our stakeholders electronically to ensure they’re involved in our decision-making.”
Tania’s advice for those starting out with EngagementHQ
“Keep it simple. It’s easy to get carried away testing all of the elements of a project or issue which can discourage participation.”