In the United Kingdom, Cheshire West and Chester Council are focused on involving local people, organizations, and partners in shaping and delivering local services. They believe in creating sustainable strategies for the community that address issues affecting the social, economic, and environmental well-being of the area.
Established in 2009, the Chester Council area covers around 350 miles and provides a range of services and support to 343,000 people. Aware of how important public consultation is to community projects, Cheshire West and Chester Council members first engaged the public through traditional communication methods such as paper and online surveys, focus groups, and consultation events. Soon, however, they realized the need for their engagement to go deeper, reach more individuals, and provide the Council with data-rich insights to guide decision-making.
“For us, it was about moving away from lengthy online surveys, and thinking about doing things in a more engaging way to understand people’s views and ideas.”
– Anna Miller, Research Team Manager at Cheshire West and Chester Council
After narrowing down their criteria for an online engagement platform, Cheshire West and Chester Council selected EngagementHQ and launched a game-changing communications platform for their community: Participate Now. This case study discusses how they chose their civic engagement software, how they are using it, and the unexpected ways it ended up creating community connections.
Community Engagement Goals and Requirements
Cheshire West and Chester Council wanted to give community members the opportunity to get involved in ways that work best for them. They realized that some people want to engage with a more detailed online survey and will take extra time to do so, while others are used to scrolling through social media, wanting to share their opinion, instantly, in the moment. The need for an online tool that offered a place for residents to easily share their opinions, in the manner they were comfortable with, was apparent.
The council’s criteria for an online engagement platform included:
- A variety of communication tools in one place
- Built-in survey capabilities
- Options for other interactive tools
- Easy to use across a range of staff
- Affordable price, value for the money
Choosing an Online Engagement Platform
Cheshire West and Chester Council, like any local government, has scarce resources, not just financially, but regarding staff capacity as well. They knew their chosen online deliberation software needed to provide value for the money and be cost-effective.
EngagementHQ met their criteria with the flexibility of its tools. They could personalize and adapt the tools to their own needs. Every organization has its own personality and needs a solution that can be customized to them.
“EngagementHQ has a wide range of different tools which means we can add more variety and choice to our offer in terms of how people may want to give us their feedback,” Anna Miller stated.
Launching their Engagement Site
The staff at Cheshire West and Chester Council were pleased with how quickly they were able to get their online engagement site up and running — from contract finalization to site launch, it only took two weeks. Government organizations are typically required to follow strict processes and procedures. Bang the Table helped by meeting procurement regulations, as well as data security requirements, thereby making the process easier for staff.
Very little internal training was needed; a half-day of training allowed a wide range of staff to be up and running. The employees found EngagementHQ to be an intuitive tool with helpful articles available for tips. If they had questions, the staff called upon their favorite function: the chatbot. EngagementHQ support staff would answer their question within minutes.
EngagementHQ Core Tools for Public Organizations
Bang the Table’s community engagement software hosts dialogue tools that sit in an open environment and allow for creative engagement. These types of tools are useful during the first stage of project engagement when the resident is curious:
- Forums tool: At this stage, the council is asking the resident to come into a discussion forum on a topic and share their view of the world and of the issue, and listen to others.
- Ideas tool: The ideas board is about replicating the sticky note concept at public meetings – it gives people a way to share their idea.
- Places tool: This is the opportunity for residents to bang the table! They share their ideas on how they feel their neighborhood needs to be improved.
In the next stage, it might be time to capture more quantitative data. Then the following tools come into play:
- Survey Tool
- Question Tools: Residents can ask questions and the agency can answer them, either publicly or privately.
- Stories Tool: Understand resident’s lived experience
EngagementHQ also has tools that help in-house researchers and council employees make sense of all the data such as a text analysis tool, survey analysis, and sentiment analysis to analyze commentary.
“The more we are realizing about EngagementHQ and how much it offers, I think the only thing that restricts you is your imagination,”
– Anna Miller, Research Team Manager at Cheshire West and Chester Council
Creating Community Connections
Once their community site was launched, Cheshire West and Chester Council were able to experience how the tool inspired conversations, transformed how they offered digital consultation, and efficiently managed incoming data and insights from participants.
They utilized the stories tool to engage with carers to understand what life is like while caring for family and close friends. This tool is a powerful and personal way to gain information. Council made use of the mapping tool, Places. Places in EngagementHQ allows participants to drop a pin on a map to indicate where they think the Council should make investments in walkways and cycleways. They can also add their comments about what they think the issues are.
Participants noted that their favorite tool is the ideation board. The council initially implemented the tool to understand resident ideas for how things could be changed and improved in the future, or how they could work together with communities to resolve problems. It then exploded in popularity with the community and sparked real conversation. Residents used the board creatively, adding images and links to other examples, thinking of ideas that could be used in future initiatives while creating community connections through brainstorming.
“People actually sparked off each other’s ideas. They started to have conversations with each other, and it brought real energy to the overall conversation; it was really different,” said Anna.
Expanding Use Beyond the Initial Vision
Since implementation, the Council has been trying out more tools in the software and honing their approach to their community engagement. They still plan to keep the survey tool at the center of their strategy, but they are working to further distill down the data they receive to tell an important story. They will use the platform’s analysis capabilities to help make sense of their data.
Now that the Council has found success with the platform, the demand for it has increased across the organization. They are looking at rolling it out across the council and developing a training module unique to how they use it. They have a plan to bring their communications team on board with it, their economic regeneration team for local development issues, and their library team for reading challenges online, which was very helpful during the pandemic. Implementing online engagement across the organization will help with creating community connections across different groups of local stakeholders.
“We want to work with a range of different teams within the Council and we’re working with Bang the Table on putting together an engagement portal, within our platform, that provides learning resources and training for all departments,” said Beverley Wilson, Insight and Intelligence Manager at Cheshire West and Chester Council.
Unexpected Benefits Revealed During Pandemic
During the early days of the pandemic, the council wanted to capture the community spirit that arose during the tough times. When everyone began to quarantine, the council staff was moved to create an ideas board on which individuals could share ideas and support for mental and physical health, at-home schooling, and healthy activities during the pandemic.
Additionally, using the stories tool, they developed an area on the platform called Inspire Chester West. This was a place for the community to share positive stories from their neighborhoods about how people were helping each other through the pandemic. They were heartened to see many people thanking each other publicly for their good deeds, further creating community connections during a difficult time.
“We’re so glad that we got this just before the pandemic,” Beverley stated, “We could breathe a sigh of relief because we had a really good alternative that we could rely on because the consultation [with the public] didn’t stop, that kept going. It gave us a way to lift our engagement into this digital world, with a much better offer than we could have done previously.”
Council’s Key Lesson
When asking the public to participate, be there to respond. Cheshire West and Chester Council learned that moderation was especially important. They discovered that the public would start conversations around key topics over the weekends or in the evenings, and often those conversations revolved around sensitive local issues that needed a Council response. EngagementHQ makes it easy to moderate and respond as needed.
Elevating Voices Through Familiar Methods
“We bought the tool as research officers,” Anna stated, “To carry out research, consultation, and engagement, to understand people’s views, and to be able to feed that data through to evidence-based decision making. But actually, we’ve realized it offers so much more than that.”
Cheshire West and Chester Council realized that the platform goes far beyond an online survey tool; it is a complete digital engagement platform. It has become their way of providing choice and variety for the public about how they want to take part in public projects. And it does it in a way that is similar to how residents are used to interacting in an online environment in their day-to-day lives. This has been the difference for the Council: they are creating community connections, reaching people where they are, and hearing from them readily because they now have an easy and familiar way to connect with their local government.
The bottom line for the Council is that EngagementHQ offers a variety of tools, all in one place, that allow them to analyze and report on data while building trust within their community.
“It’s not just about the software. You have to have that ability to translate the product into success for the client,” said Jonathan Bradley, Head of Business and Practice UK, Bang the Table.
Want to learn more? Listen to the GovLaunch Podcast in which officials from Cheshire West and Chester Council discuss their decision-making process and implementation of EngagementHQ.