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How do you engage with a community?


by Gemma Gallant and Katy Bennett, Cratus Communities

Traditional engagement takes place in village halls and community centres, with decisions later made in council chambers where the ‘usual suspects’ gather to voice their concerns. Local councillors know these individuals well, but what about the rest of their communities?

Informal engagement methods are crucial when it comes to reaching out and making sure we hear those who speak up less often. From pop-up stalls and drop-in sessions to social media posts and plain English newsletters, being creative about how we communicate is key to reaching the community that extends beyond the town hall.

Engagement should take place in some format by both councils and developers whenever change is proposed – whether that is a new council budget or a possible new development. Knowledge is power (cheesy but true!) and informing people about plans, explaining the rationale behind them, and going back to the drawing board armed with information from the community you are working with when they speak up should be cornerstones of every piece of engagement. The last step is often where all but the best engagement practitioners fall down: those seeking engagement must be prepared to offer engagement in return. Often that is most effective in the form of some concession or adjustment put forward by the community, not just those with the power to vote on the proposal.

In the planning and development world, how involved a resident has been through the decision-making process dictates how engaged they will feel when construction begins. In light of this week’s government announcement about additional funding to ensure local communities are consulted from the very beginning, there is no better time to rethink your engagement strategy.

The IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum is one of the most widely applied models of public participation and helps to clarify the different stages of involvement a resident could experience in decision-making processes like planning consultations. The spectrum is divided into five distinct areas – inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower – which each contain a promise to participants.

The vast majority of engagement strategies focus on informing and consulting. After all, traditional consultation demands a certain level of information be provided, and consultation events held over several days and supported by newsletters, social media and websites are tools used to inform community feedback while plans are developed.

However, the stages of involving, collaborating and empowering are different beasts and arguably the most important to ensure the success of a scheme. Involving the community means truly creating a two way dialogue with the community – not merely offering a survey at a consultation event and averaging the results. What do the residents’ associations think? What do those who work in the community, but did not attend the consultation, think? What are the schools’ concerns? Sometimes this results in qualitative data, which is harder to analyse than quantitative ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers as to whether the plans are supported. However, this data is more valuable from an engagement perspective because it allows the proposer to hear more informative views from the community and offers them the opportunity to start collaborating and co-designing. Incorporating views from the consulting stage to find common ground and reach compromises over a handful of contentious issues is not just beneficial for the reputation of the developer or council, but it also gives the resident a doorway into the final stage – empowerment.

Empowering a community should be the golden age of engagement. All strategies should point here, with a clear focus on how the community can be taken on this decision-making process with the developer or council. Educating residents of all ages on the nuances of a masterplan and how the planning process works should be par for the course, while setting up residents’ groups and committees that didn’t exist before can serve that empowerment agenda and ensure there is a lasting community legacy as well as the physical assets created through the development. These new groups in turn make future engagement easier for everyone, as conversations can be focused in clear channels, and the groups come together to offer informed, constructive feedback to the proposed plans as part of the strengthened relationship they now have with those who consulted to start with.

If you would like to talk more about effective resident engagement, get in touch with the Communities team at [email protected].


How do you engage with a community?