Engaging rural and regional communities by Susan Benedyka

Susan Benedyka has been engaging rural and regional communities in conversations about public policy for three decades. We sat down for a chat to talk about the many lessons from her experiences.

Susan was born amidst the red earth of the far western New South Wales mining town of Broken Hill and grew up in the regional city of Wagga Wagga. As she says, “I’m a rural and regional person, and I did the Australian Rural Leadership Program back in 1996. It helped me to recognise that I wanted to work with rural and regional communities for the rest of my life.”

In her own words, Susan established the Regional Development Company in 1997, as a vehicle for her “passion for rural and regional communities, and enabling communities and people in communities to have a vision and achieve it. The motivation for starting the company was that I’d been involved with community development work, with economic work, with leading communities, and I really wanted to make sure that voices were heard, and that people were properly engaged. Things that really motivate me are community and stakeholder engagement, facilitation and using facilitation really wisely, strategic planning and leadership development.”

The business has been based in the regional Victorian city of Wangaratta for around ten years. Wangaratta (or Wang’ to the locals) is a broad-acre agricultural area surrounded by beautiful alpine valleys about three hours north of Melbourne on the Hume Highway, which connects Melbourne and Sydney. While it’s called a “city” it’s really a small town of around seventeen thousand people; or twenty-one thousand if you include people who live in the surrounding rural communities. Those communities could be anything from a hundred people to ten thousand.

At any one time, the Regional Development Company runs about thirty widely varying jobs. Susan explains, “Right now we are working with a regional water board on their strategic planning. I’m also running a number of leadership programs in rural towns. We’re helping one council to improve the resilience of very small communities, of maybe 200 people, to withstand and rebuild after major catastrophes such as fires, floods or the death of a community leader. We’ve just finished working on a 40-year vision for a community in Tasmania. So there’s a wide range of projects and places.”

When you’re dealing with little tiny locality based communities like that, do you find it hard to get access to people or is it ironically easier because they’re such small places and populations?

I reckon it’s easier in a way. I’ve often had to work in really tiny communities where their local netball club might be really important to them, so often I’ll run a consultation on the Thursday night, which is netball training night. Sometimes, if I’m particularly looking for say young people between fifteen and thirty, I’ll ask my client organization to make a donation to that particular club so that I can then sit down with their permission and run some focus groups with people of different ages, and get some really strong involvement.

In some of the other communities like the small ones I was talking about fifty percent of the ratepayers in those communities live in the cities. They only come back on weekends. There’s a couple of different ways that we engage them. Sometimes I run a town hall type meeting, but actually in a suburb of Melbourne. I’ve had up to three hundred people at those meetings because they’re so passionate about their rural property that they’re willing in the city to come and sit in on a meeting and talk about it. We have to set the date well in advance and promote it really well.

I’ve got controversial facilitation coming up in early November where the people are trying to work out what to put on a public space of land. There are a whole lot of different views. We actually set the date for that meeting six months in advance. We worked with the people who were non-resident ratepayers as well as the local residents to say when will it be best, and we’ve got a big barbecue planned for that day. It’s going to be a community celebration as well as tackling this really controversial issue.

Do you find any specific problems with working in tiny communities?

Oh, actually there’s really interesting problems. Just as you do in cities, but you can have splinter groups that get very strong ideas and can create barriers with other people in that community, and because they’re seeing each other so frequently, those points of friction become very ingrained and it becomes very difficult. You’ve got to be able to work around that.

…and how do you work around that?

I look for the common ground. For most rural and regional communities the common ground is that people love where they live, they absolutely adore it. Everything then can be framed about what’s going to make this better for us? People have very different views about that, but we can then start looking at what will take that place forward.

Then often too, I’ll work with a community group to train their members to conduct interviews on our behalf, or we use kitchen table conversations a lot where it’s not the facilitator or the paid facilitator doing it, but it’s individuals having conversations with people that matter to them. We use a lot of different methods.

When you’re working in tiny communities, how do you deal with the historical context in terms of inter-family relationships and that sort of thing because you’re walking into a lot of history sometimes I imagine?

By asking lots of questions up front. Asking what are the hot spots before I go into those communities. Usually, my client will know about those hot spots, so I ask “What do I need to be aware of? What are issues that are riling people up? Are there any tensions that I need to be aware of?”

When you talk about community engagement or any engaged community, what is it that you’re looking for to know that that community’s engaged?

There are certain things that will trigger people to be engaged. An emotion is one of them. If people feel passionately about an issue they will get engaged. If an issue doesn’t ring any bells for then then it is very unlikely that you can get someone to come out of their home on a night to come to a meeting or to talk to anyone about it. The issue about engagement is to identify “Why are we engaging people? What difference will it make, and how will they know that their participation is contributing to the actual result or the idea?”

I’ll give you an example of a local airport in a small community. The community is about fifteen thousand people. The airport is pretty close to town. It’s not used as a commercial airport, but it has real potential as a tourism hub for gliding, ballooning, and a lot of other activities that can run there. What I found absolutely wonderful is we had letterboxed through the council, all of the people within two suburbs of that area plus all of the users, we had really good databases. People are just turning up. They’d come along to open houses and an open house meeting meaning it’s come in, have a look, tell us what you think, find out more information about it, get involved more if you want to get involved.

It really just gave me an understanding of how passionate people were about their airport. As we went through the more detailed parts of the consultation it narrowed down to quite a few people who were much more passionately and closely involved, where it really mattered to them, and we were able to develop a strategy with them.

Then, when we did a second round of consultation it was really interesting to observe the community reaction. It was in the local paper, people were talking about it, they were talking to each other about it. I could sit in a café anonymously and hear other people talking about, “Oh have you heard what they’re doing to the airport?”

I want to get a buzz about that particular thing. When I’ve got the energy where there’s a buzz that’s not happening directly as a result of an intervention from me, but it’s actually got its own life and its own legs, then I know people are engaged.

If I can hear a conversation going on where it’s totally uninformed, then I’ve got to go back to my drawing board and back to my clients and say, “What have we done, how can we get this information better out?”  Again, it’s interesting, on that particular project there is someone who has a notion when they’ve responded to the draft plan, that there’s a particular notion of an idea, and they’ve influenced others to respond in exactly the same way. As a consultant I’ve now gone back to the client to say, “Look, there’s something happening here, I think we need to go back, and call a meeting where all those people with this particular concern, and really get to the nub of it, and then work out from their perspective what will be the best solution. Rather than try and impose something. That’s the advantage of being in a small community.”

I’m just wondering how you go about re-framing something that uses the language of government and bureaucracy to turn it into something that will get people excited, and interested, and passionate; what’s your process for doing that?

One of the luxuries about this stage of development of my business is that we choose not to accept tokenistic jobs. If for example, we feel that a client is only doing engagement for the sake of ticking a box, we actually don’t accept the job or we take on a job with the idea to change the way in which they do things and model a different way. It’s very rare that we are involved in, for example, a draft strategy review, having not been involved with the process of developing that strategy. That’s one way of avoiding it.

The second way is that when there’s something that comes up in that draft strategy it’s putting back in the exact words that we heard, what mattered to people. If we heard passion around a particular issue, and we’ve now captured those words and that strategy, that’s the grab for saying “this is what we really heard, have we got this right?” The point of going out for that second round for me is to test our listening by saying; “This what we heard, this is what we’ve done with it, have we got it right?”

Do you take control of the communications around any media or collateral material and that sort of thing so that you can frame the nature of the conversation and the topic?

In the past I used to do a lot of the communications in house, but I’ve found that actually walking alongside the clients and working with them has been a much more effective strategy. One of the values I have in my business is we need to and want to leave our clients stronger and better off because of our involvement with them. That means walking alongside them so that we’re modeling skills and we’re modeling ways of doing things.

It’s about leaving a legacy, and it’s been much better to get in and work with the communications team internally, particularly in local government so that they get it. It’s often that I’ll have the communications person involved in the internal projects steering committee most of the time, and in fact, I ask for it so that we can frame and shape those messages so that they really do pick up what we’re hearing from people and connect back to the people who have been really involved.

Photo credit: Cow with goggles by Lima Pix

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