“The feedback we have received from the public is fantastic. People are reading our strategies that we put up … And they are reading them line by line. They are giving us intelligent, well-considered feedback.” James Sampson-Foster, Analyst, Engagement Insight Team, Coventry City Council.
What could engagement do better if practitioners reached beyond the survey into the media-rich potential of a dedicated online engagement platform? Coventry City Council unlocked opportunities to cut through the limitations on traditional offline consultation with Let’s Talk Coventry, a dedicated online hub for communicating with the community. In looking to be open, connected, and tuned in to everyone with a stake in the future of their City, Let’s Talk Coventry creates a place where conversations thrive. It also nurtures the relationships vital to the alignment of priorities for better decisions.
What Can it Mean to Create Good Engagement?
James Sampson-Foster, Analyst in the Engagement Insight Team at Coventry City Council, reveals that good engagement demands a willingness to do things differently with the tools available. While consultation fatigue is often referenced in community engagement practice, Sampson-Foster suggests that it may have much to do with how people are engaged as a result of a black-box approach to consultation, where, for instance, the relationship between feedback and outcome is unclear. Good engagement, in addressing this, would give people the clarity they need to join and stay in a conversation where their input is demonstrably valued.
But good engagement, Sampson-Foster points out, needs a culture shift to enable it, not just a different set of tools. Such a shift would demand strong internal buy-in and the willingness to examine what has been done before, to understand what works for the community and what doesn’t, and to explore the opportunities that new technology can bring to consultation.
Sampson-Foster states: “We have built up a wonderful Q&A where the general public have been asking us tough and searching questions, as well they should. What we have been able to do with that is demonstrate good faith and a willingness to do what we can by answering them in a public way and that is one of the best things I love about the Q&A tool.”
Coventry’s housing engagement on Let’s Talk Coventry has had over five times the response rate as previous attempts off the platform.
Housing Coventry’s Questions and Solutions
Coventry’s housing engagement on Let’s Talk Coventry has had over five times the response rate as previous attempts off the platform. Let’s Talk Coventry tackles a range of projects around themes such as climate action, diversity, food resilience, disability and inclusion, and social housing – a one-stop hub where all these different consultations live, and where people who want to have a say in these matters can all get into conversation together. This centralizing factor allows for a positive spiral of increase in engagement by bringing people in the door to where they can see what else is going on. Participants who come in to provide feedback on a particular issue may contribute further on other issues that matter to them, learning of more opportunities through the hub.
This multimedia, centralized approach to engagement can also address the challenge of taking dense or complex information out to the community. While longform documents remain a vital component of the resources available to the public, there is also space for creativity in unpacking information for the community with the use of video, graphics, or images. Innovation in this regard can make information more easily available, more accessible, and thereby better equip the community to bring their unique knowledge, needs, and perspectives to the conversation.
Unlocking Opportunity from Risk
To those more familiar with traditional, offline approaches to engagement, online consultations may represent an unknown quantity. Digital engagement is relatively new. The dynamics can be quite distinct from traditional media. And it may offer uncertainty around whether or not it can achieve its goals and how effectively it may do so. By contrast, traditional, offline engagement is well known to practitioners and planners. Town hall or ward meetings are familiar enough that their opportunities and limitations can be anticipated.
Online engagement, by comparison, can compel an exploration beyond the comfort zone. It can represent risk. It can carry uncertainty. However, these risks can be transformed into opportunities, Sampson-Foster suggests, by ensuring that the risks are sensible and by giving potential implications their due consideration. For instance, on the use of the Q&A tool, practitioners would need to put processes and decisions in place to address how and by whom the public’s questions may be answered, what kind of decisions this could need, what kind of responses may emerge, and how these risks may be sensibly managed.
The reward for stepping out of the comfort zone and into having to manage risk is the substantial opportunity for bringing a wider range and volume of different voices to the conversation, especially those who may not be able to participate offline. The risks associated with online engagement also contain within them the opportunities to transcend the limitations of traditional methods and augment offline engagement. However, offline engagement remains at the heart of public consultation in Coventry, and elsewhere, working in tandem with online engagement to cover greater ground and distill actionable insight from across the community and stakeholders.
Getting Everyone Onboard
Internal buy-in is key to the culture shift that can produce great community engagement. While dedicated engagement teams can focus specifically on bringing consultation to life, they may have little to do with the decisions or service delivery issues that shape local civic life. The teams that work across these policy or service areas and departments have an important role to play in the success of engagement. They are key stakeholders in the conversation, and stand to benefit from the actionable insights drawn from community engagement. Consultation teams can draw constructively on these key stakeholders to understand what they may be looking for, and how engagement may unlock value for them.
Similarly, the community may have different perspectives on what brings value to their participation. A key consideration for practitioners in this regard is accessibility, and online engagement can augment offline engagement to this end. But even within online engagement, digital literacy or general literacy, for instance, can be pertinent to the inclusion or exclusion of some demographics and communities. All the more reason for practitioners to find creative ways to draw these groups into engaging and tap into a multimedia approach to address their unique requirements. The digital realm lends itself to thinking beyond long blocks of intense text and making information more easily presented and accessed.
Provoking Better Conversation
Let’s Talk Coventry’s journey into a thriving hub for important conversations grew gradually to draw its now steady stream of participants. Trust and respect remain fundamental in this regard, Sampson-Foster points out. Practitioners do well to ask questions to the community when the question is thought-out and thorough in what it seeks to uncover, and the community’s answers have somewhere solid to go and be counted. Questions create expectations and these must be grounded in respect for the community’s role and investment in the matter.
Sampson-Foster reveals that conversation doesn’t have to just mean big-picture decisions or change and that engagement can speak to the softer, finer details that can be democratised to give people a better sense of ownership of their civic environment. Non-transactional engagement, where the focus is not limited to a decision or a policy-related discussion, can help create and nurture community-council relationships. In addition to fostering a connectedness over the day-to-day life of the community, such engagement can help maintain the relationships necessary to build conversation and distill insight from this connectedness.
Social media has often been thought of as a space to spark connections with community and stakeholders but it comes with its own unique set of limitations. Conversations on social media are notorious for devolving into unproductive exchanges. With comments flying by the second and little space for deliberation or reflection, social media can easily affect how people feel in being heard. It can, however, work side by side with dedicated engagement in getting information out to the public. But the deep conversations that are necessary to generate unique community insight are the product of dedicated engagement. In many ways the environment of dedicated online engagement lends itself to enabling this kind of productive conversation.
Sampson-Foster suggests that dedicated online engagement spaces make people feel as if they are being heard. This may in turn, he argues, contribute to sustaining a certain civility and conformity to what is widely seen as responsible or good behaviour in offline engagement activities. In addition, the moderation of online conversations can be instrumental in maintaining a safe space where all voices can, indeed, be heard.
Tune in to find out how Coventry applies best practice online engagement to enable their community to have their say on the issues that matter.