When Wingecarribee Shire Council first signed on to EngagementHQ in 2009, the organization had no experience delivering online consultation and didn’t know how its community would feel about the option.
Ten years later, and Wingecarribee’s EngagementHQ platform has been used for more than 125 projects, the site has clocked 238,000 visits, and more than 2,000 locals are registered users. That’s pretty impressive for a community of only 48,000 people.
Community Engagement Coordinator, Charmaine Cooper, said the decision in 2009 was prompted by Council’s plans to develop the shire’s first community strategic plan: Wingecarribee 2030+.
“We knew town hall style meetings didn’t suit a large portion of our population, especially people who were time-poor. This project gave us the opportunity to step back and think about better ways to engage,” Charmaine says.
The Wingecarribee community expressed interest in an online option and the result was a community strategy that continues to actively guide and influence the council’s strategic direction a decade later.
“We chose EngagementHQ because it was the only tool of its kind, and was developed in Australia by people who understood the local government context. It was a brave decision at the time, and it paid off.”
Becoming business as usual
Encouraged by the community adoption of the platform, Wingecarribee moved to a multi-project license and hasn’t looked back.
“In the beginning, we put up select projects, to give us time to become familiar with the platform and to get the community used to using it. Now, it’s a critical part of all project planning,” Charmaine says.
The community has also embraced the digital journey.
“We had a small core group of members initially, and they could be relied on to respond to surveys. Overtime this has expanded and they’re now actively involved in mapping, uploading images and commenting.”
Charmaine says the key to developing a vibrant and trusted online engagement ecosystem is the breadth and regularity of opportunities to share & receive information.
“You need to put everything and anything up there, even if it’s a simple public exhibition, and then heavily promote subscription. Our community is so familiar and comfortable with the platform now. It’s gratifying to send out a newsletter and within minutes see responses coming in.”
The platform also provides transparency in how the Wingecarribee community input is gathered and utilized for all projects delivered since 2009.
“We’ll still have people say: ‘I haven’t heard about this’, or ‘I wasn’t consulted on this’, which is a great opportunity for us to introduce them to the platform and show them the history of engagement.”
Importantly, data from EngagementHQ is constantly used to influence council decisions. Reports are provided to the relevant project team, and also submitted to councilors when necessary to guide formal decisions.
Most recently, the platform has proven invaluable in enabling the council to continue its community consultation uninterrupted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sometimes the outcome is not what you’re expecting
By using the platform as a communication tool, Wingecarribee has had engagement success on unexpected topics — like a rate rise.
“We used the exhibition phase to explain how a new rating system would work and why it was necessary,” Charmaine says. “We assumed people wouldn’t want it, but we had an incredible show of support for the increase. People engaged with the platform, read the information we provided, and gave considered responses.”
Then there was the time the council asked communities in outlying villages if they wanted reticulated water.
“We thought the community would jump at the chance, but the locals said they were managing their water supply on their own and didn’t need it. We’ve gone back since, and received the same response, but we’ll continue to ask in the future in case that sentiment changes. In the meantime, we’re respecting the community’s decision.”
Online tools with impact
Wingecarribee makes regular use of EngagementHQ’s newsletter, newsfeed, and questions functions, with the survey remaining the go-to tool.
One of the most popular surveys to date was related to plans to introduce a green waste service, drawing wide and varied opinions across the shire. The resulting feedback influenced the frequency of the service and led to the introduction of different sized-bins. Feedback also told the council that the rural community didn’t need or want the service.
Wingecarribee has also had success with the mapping tool. “We used it to identify businesses going plastic-free. We encouraged the community to use the markers to show when they’d visited businesses who were being proactive, and it gave us a great picture of what’s happening in our business community.” Charmaine says.
EngagementHQ as a team member
As a team of one, Charmaine appreciates the critical role EngagementHQ plays in her daily work life.
“It’s like having another team member. It really does work alongside me in so many ways. I couldn’t do engagement without it.”
However, she still recommends proactively training staff to manage their own project pages.
“It’s intuitive and easy to use, and the Bang the Table team has been very responsive over the entire time. They’ve been keen to hear our ideas about how the platform can be improved to meet our community needs, and those suggestions have been built into new versions.”
Charmaine’s advice for newcomers to EngagementHQ
- Jump in and be bold. Put everything online – nothing is too minor. Just go for it and really build your audience and grow your membership. It’s hard to get that initial burst of members, so you may need to walk the streets and actively recruit.
- Require people to register to interact with the platform. It can be tempting to remove that step for users, but it’s worth it, in the end, to keep it because it helps you grow your members and stand you in good stead for future engagement activities.
- Friday is a good day to send out news about an engagement opportunity: people tend to sit around and relax in the evening and share their opinions.
- Keep your URL short!