We have seen a significant dip in the willingness of communities to engage since COVID – for which there may be many reasons. Maybe to start with a fear of meetings and mixing, but that has diminished. There’s definitely a continuing strong element of cynicism, a loss of credibility in government and in planning, which is having on impact on Neighbourhood Planning engagement.
So, when preparing NDPs we need to protect and build their credibility. Smartphones and online awareness has substantially increased across all age ranges since COVID. This provides an opportunity for us to make it as easy as possible for people to engage with our Plans and to make that engagement safe, meaningful and long term, and possibly with wider benefits for local council work.
And of course, we also need to keep up with the digitisation of planning driven by the Levelling Up Bill.
So, from my experience, what are the pillars for successful community engagement in creating NDPs…?
A budget that is sensible but adequate.
- Don’t rely on traditional formats. The budget doesn’t have to be huge but ensure enough is included to cover traditional leafletting and advertising, face to face engagement and a proper digital engagement approach..
- Be prepared to flex the budget in case a need for additional engagement emerges as the NDP progresses, for example to ‘deep dive’ into a particular issue that may emerge as the Plan progresses.
The budget should be based on clear community engagement strategy that is ‘digitally fit for purpose’.
- Use a stakeholder analysis approach to identify who should be engaged with and how to engage with them. Work out who will be impacted by your NDP, what their needs and expectations might be for consultation, how you would best engage with them [email, formal letter, survey, F2F], and how often you should engage.
- Research what is out there in terms of apps and digital community engagement platforms and the trends in community use of online info and communications.
- It is really good to have a small consultation team with a lead person in charge, that monitors each campaign in ‘real-time’.
- Identify a social media campaign lead person to be in charge of each channel [app] and do the content management.
- Don’t rely on a Facebook page alone – it’s very popular but is also very limited in what it can do, can’t host documents effectively, and can get out of control…
- Ideally don’t create a website but use a proper digital community engagement platform, such as that provided by GoCollaborate, as your NDP website.
- If creating a website for the NDP [or an NDP page on your existing website], prepare a brief specification that’s clear on its purpose and how it will link to a digital engagement platform.
- Keep websites simple for users – avoid fancy graphics and animations. A basic word-press site will do.
- Allow a generous allowance of time and effort for setting up and creating the online platform and leaflet content. It can’t be done in a few spare minutes!
- Include simple ‘explainer’ videos [there are several apps for that available], interesting local images and make messages relevant and with local appeal.
- Make use of digital mapping tools such as Parish Online.
- Ensure any digital documentation is ‘mobile friendly’.
- IF using a digital platform, following it’s ‘on-boarding guide’ is vital – Initially it may be difficult to understand how digital engagement platforms work but this quickly dissipates.
- Make sure that the platform’s user dashboard is monitored frequentkly.
- There will always be people who are not familiar with IT so other channels must be available for them.
- Combine online engagement with more traditional ‘drop-in’ sessions where people can engage face-to-face if they want to discuss issues in more depth.
- Website, Platform, leaflet and drop-in materials should be consistent in message and branding to avoid confusion.
- Take an equalities and diversity aware approach – start the EqIA process from the start as an integral part of the strategy for engagement [i.e. in your stakeholder analysis] so that your process fits the NDP requirement to follow human rights [Equalities Act 2010].
For any surveys or consultations employ a preliminary and continuous publicity campaign.
- Use social media [not just Facebook!], leaflets, posters, and business cards featuring linking QR codes that link to your online survey to kick start and maintain response.
- Keep it up right through to the referendum – local councils can’t campaign for a yes vote but can promote turnout and explain what it’s all about. [example of PC that lost by two votes].
- Care is needed with publicity to avoid oversimplification and avoid accusations of misleading people.
Sufficient human resources to manage and staff the campaign.
- Real-time evaluation of take up during engagement periods is essential so that areas of low response can be targeted.
- Work the consultation and engagement strategy – be sure to respond quickly to queries and misunderstandings.
- Ensure drop-ins never have less than two team members present, set up and follow H&S and Safeguarding protocols.
Use community leaders to amplify the campaign.
- Identify your local movers and shakers, organisation chairs etc, and make sure they are briefed.
- A young person to champion NDP engagement amongst peers or a youth forum and via trusted App channels [Instagram, TikTok, Twitter] may be effective.
- Word of mouth in clubs, groups, pubs and street corners to spread awareness.
- Community conversations are a key part of plan-making, so the ability to leave comments and chat on website and platform that can be seen and commented on by other users should be included.
- Where there is a chat facility it should be actively moderated to avoid ‘gaming’ by interest groups seeking to sway the overall sentiment.
Use the community engagement strategy to support the development of positive working relationships and trust over the long term.
- Ensure you communicate how peoples engagement responses have been considered and what the outcomes are: – that will help in building credibility for the NDP – press releases, email responses etc.
- User registrations collected in the first rounds can become, subject to GDPR, a cohort of engagers for later rounds.
Taking a strong digital approach can have major benefits…
- A significantly eased administrative burden of engagement – much of the data product is pre-analysed and easier to use than raw data.
- Lower costs in the long term – and possibility to use a platform for other purposes [subject to GDPR].
- Greater reach across the community and deeper investigation of issues is possible.
- Improved quality and relevance of the comments received, compared to more traditional forms of engagement.
- Enhanced transparency – the information is out there and available to all.
- A fixed and accessible record – not an excel file on someone’s data stick!
- The chat facility, carefully used gives community consensus building potential
Comprehensive digital engagement could be made use of in many local council activities and clearly has a strong future amongst the suite of tools that are available. Eg’s…. business and budget planning, consultation on play projects, collecting views on new development schemes, creating a village design statement – basically anything where community engagement is involved.
GoCollaborate offers advice on community engagement approaches and strategies, to ensure that the feedback NDP groups receive is informed, constructive and representative. Their digital platform helps to maximise engagement and ensure Groups get the information they need on what their community wants and feels. You can find out more here: https://www.gocollaborate.co.uk/