Anne Bransdon, Broken Hill City’s Community Engagement Officer, reflects on how one local government has used online methods to support its public engagement goals.
“About a year ago, we engaged online consultation software experts, Bang the Table, to consult our community about the fees, activities, infrastructure and day-to-day management of the newly refurbished Regional Aquatic Centre.
As part of the consultation, we used “Engagement HQ“, Bang the Table’s software platform and forum that generated plenty of high quality and constructive debate about all of the issues Council sought comment on.
A bit about us:
Broken Hill is a vibrant NSW outback community with its heritage in mining and agriculture and a future in sustainable energy, tourism and the film industry. Like many regional communities, the City’s population is ageing and has not been at the forefront of the Internet race with only just over 50 per cent of the population having access to the Internet at home.
Traditionally, the residents of the City value and support conventional methods of communication such as newspaper and radio.
So why did we consult using the internet?
With a deep understanding of this community dynamic and the realisation that the City’s future population will be more dependent on electronic forms of communication and news, we’re firmly committed to achieving best practice in the delivery of its services. We have a clear policy to promote strategies and processes which effectively address planning and service delivery through all forms of consultation.
Our first foray into the realm of online consultation addressed the issue of how the community expected Council to manage and operate the $4.5M redeveloped Regional Aquatic Centre. While using Engagement HQ’s methods was a very different approach, we felt that it may have a place in our community engagement strategy in trying to reach beyond our traditional audience. We decided to use this project as a pilot and test the online consultation waters.
How we made it work
We embedded the online consultation in a thorough engagement strategy which included face-to-face consultation, printed materials and advertising. This included using Council’s community newsletter, the local paper and a number of news releases about “government engaging online for the first time”. We were also pleased to receive attention from the local television news which helped promote the consultation to the community.
We asked about five or six very direct questions regarding the operations and fee structure of the centre and received back from the community a wealth of very clear responses.
755 people visited the website and made 94 comments on issues like the pricing model, disability access, new infrastructure options and programs. The consultation provided council with a great deal of good quality information to inform its future planning and policy making.
It is interesting to note, given the quality of the responses, that Customer Satisfaction Research into the performance of Broken Hill City Council conducted by independent company Micromex Research in November 2009, revealed that only about 19 per cent of those surveyed were aware of the online community consultation, implying even better results might be achieved with the application of more effective promotional arrangements.
Consulting on a very specific topic, like the Aquatic Centre, proved to be successful for us. The redevelopment of the complex had generated community discussion (and passion) for more than a decade. We received some very distinct views around the entire complex, on payment and at the end of the day canvassed the community on season tickets and family tickets. The Bang the Table forum and site gave us a whole new opportunity to cater effectively to our community in terms of consultation.
In view of the success, we’ve signed up to Bang the Table for another 12 months and we’ll be using it as a tool in our community strategic plan.
The feedback confirmed that residents wanted a system that catered for multiuse and varying pricing structures for entry fees. This was included in the 2009/2014 Management Plan.
To achieve that we’re reviewing available turnstiles to determine those best suited to catering for coin entry and multipurpose passes.
The feedback also confirmed;
- The arrangement with the City’s Swimming Clubs should remain in place to allow Council to maximise the public use of the facilities
- The need for better signage to inform the public of arrangements during club swimming hours and directional signage for visitors
- Additional information was required on Council’s website regarding pool hours
Future Stage 2 and 3 considerations
The community also indicated that disabled access to the pool was of high priority (ramp access for the 25m pool has since been installed); that they would like to see the redevelopment of the program pool, the replacement of the toddler pool with a water playground, the redevelopment and extension of the kiosk, new change rooms and the development of a function room.
Ease of reporting
What was really great was the ease of reporting on the data. The reporting tool meant that Council could just hit a button and a report would be generated immediately. It meant that we didn’t have to spend time on collation or merging details and could concentrate on the follow up decision making processes.
We could also set our own parameters – enter in certain dates and nominate various factors that required particular data and create a report based on those numbers. I liked that a lot. The simplicity of report generation was a highlight – that and the fact that we could direct people to the forum from our own website.
User friendly and fun!
What was also a winner from our point of view was the simplicity of the actual site for our users. Our community could navigate their way through the site without any particular issues, and that included people of all age groups and all levels of education. From the feedback we got on the swimming pool consultation, we found that people actually enjoyed doing it.
The design of the site and the technical support we had in getting the site up and running was excellent. If there were any issues (and of course there were just like in any new project) they were dealt with quickly and without any fuss.
Customer Satisfaction Research has also revealed that the more alternatives customers have that they are comfortable with, the more satisfied they are.
The Micromex Research, revealed that satisfaction with the way Council consults with the community is trending upwards from previous research and above the LGA Benchmark.”
Four takeaway messages
- Keep your consultation simple. The more complex you get, the more likely people will not respond
- Get inside the head of your customer. Conduct some research. Make sure that the way you consult with the community will give you maximum value and results
- An absolute must is to only make this one component of your consultation
- Conduct some forward promotion to let everyone know that they are being asked for their opinion
Anne Bransdon is the Communications Manager for Broken Hill City Council.
She is an award winning journalist, having worked with Fairfax, Australian Provincial Newspapers and Rural Press.
Anne’s roles have included Media Management positions within the NSW State Government and prior to joining Council she was the Public Affairs Manager for the Greater Western Area Health Service – a service which covers 55 per cent of rural and regional NSW.
Anne has extensive experience in government and media relations, public affairs, community consultation and issues management. Her passion lies in rural and regional community development and promotion and working with communities to promote their voice to build sustainable futures. She particularly enjoys capturing community events on film.
Anne currently coordinates Council’s Corporate Image, Community Grants Program, promotions, advertising, newsletters, web development and online community consultation.
Photo Credits: Steve Mullarkey
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