So you have read the blogs about how to do community engagement, you researched the processes and attended training on the tools and techniques. You may even have been a good community engagement practioner and written an engagement and communications plan to help those who are walking the journey with you take the right steps but now your there and doing it what can you do during the process, alongside the business stuff, that will help you the next time you have to engage the community.
Here are 5 simple things you should be doing whilst you’re actually engaging the community to help you next time you are out and about.
Keep Building Relationships
No brainer. Get to know your community better before, during and after a process. Learn who is who, what their interests are, what pushes their buttons, how do you start conversations with them, who are the key players, groups, influencers, who they shout for on a Saturday afternoon and what their wife/husband/dogs name is! Whilst you’re engaging on your current project don’t forget to take mental notes for next time as you never know when you’ll need to speak to them again or what it could be about. Having an ‘in’ with certain people in the community is always a good start to any process and during the ‘down’ time make time meet certain community members for coffee to keep up to date with the community gossip. In my last local government role I had one go to community member I would discuss all potential community engagement plans with before writing them down to gain her reaction and input.
Get the questions and the answers right
Whilst engaging, get to know your audience first before you set questions for them and be meaningful in all you ask of them. Know and be confident about the subject you are engaging on or at least have people with you that you can refer too when needed. Demographic questions have their place and don’t need to be included in everything you do and make sure the questions you ask have no ulterior motive. Keeping surveys short, open and interactive is more likely to get better responses than one with 20 mins of wordy questions and yes/no tick boxes. Next time you ask them to do it they will feel more at ease that it’s not going to sap the life out of them to take part.
Most of all when asking questions make sure you don’t ask for views you can’t or won’t use. Not only will this confuse people but wastes time, theirs and yours. Once I stripped a question from an annual survey, that had run for 2 years already, about the design of parks and recreation spaces that asked the respondent if they didn’t use parks was it because they had issues at home…
I mean how is… what… I can’t even… no.
Go to them during the process
I find that whilst meetings in town halls have their place in community engagement actually meeting out in the community during a process is far more beneficial. It helps you build trust and promote transparency whilst also giving you the opportunity to visit sites you may be engaging about or asking the community to develop and offers the chance to walk and talk whilst looking at the issues that are being raised.
By meeting somewhere they already know or congregate you are more likely to get a better turnout as they may bring family and friends along with them. Whilst the process is running you might learn a certain community group meets at the local pub on a Tuesday night, don’t be afraid to arrange with them to drop in and use that opportunity if it fits your process. They’ll appreciate you coming to them. Also just because it’s not in your engagement plan it doesn’t hurt to pop out of the office and just check in with people during a process. My second office in local government was a place called Coffee Amigo. Similar to number 1 is that you should also learn where people meet and feel comfortable in their own communities so you can use these to keep in contact with them in-between processes.
Whilst communication at the beginning and end of a process is often when it’s at its strongest and all happening due to robust planning, communication during the process needs to be as strong and at a level people are happy with. Once started actually ask people how they wish to be informed of the projects process and how they would like to participate in the future and then add this to your communications plan.
Don’t assume that everyone wants to receive a generic e-newsletter or that everyone is on Facebook to receive the project photo updates when all they want is a simple update poster in their community centre. Collecting this information will not only help during the current process but your communication with them if and when future opportunities arise.
Make the process comfortable
I recently wrote a post for ELGL on making community engagement meetings more accessible and most of these tips are actually tactics for making the process more comfortable for people to attend and take part. Some of these things you will have to do on the fly so be prepared. Having the ‘right’ refreshments available, in rooms they know and at times they can actually attend goes a long way to making the process more agreeable to the participant and more likely they will come back another time. Fun is also important, where possible inject interactivity, Gamification and opportunities to make them smile so that the process leaves a good impression on them for the next one.
The tip here is to gauge people’s moods as they enter a room or arrive at a site. Understand people have things going on in their lives and giving up an hour of their time could be precious so make them feel wanted. If someone looks like they need a coffee, make it for them, if someone looks lost greet them and introduce them to another community member and if someone looks like they are going to start WW3 after seeing the agenda sit them down and explain how the meeting is going to roll and ask them do they have any concerns before it starts. I’ve been known to drop whole presentations because I felt the room wouldn’t like it.
So where these are not like the 5 hard fast rules you often see in other blog post on community engagement processes I hope they are simple and easy to follow tips that will help you with making your future processes more comfortable and enjoyable for both you and your community.
Remember even though you should be planning each community engagement process fresh from the start there is no problem in learning from what you have done in the past, as well as adapting whilst you go, and also building the groundwork for future processes during and after your current opportunity. This ensures each time you go out there you know who your community is and how and where to communicate with them.
Go explore and understand your community.