Using online tools for community engagement and consultation
By David Janner-Klausner | 16/06/15 15:30
2 min read
Localism projects appeal to values and paradigms that sometimes feel traditional, even ‘old fashioned’. We’re talking about the ‘community spirit’, ‘local responsibility’ and ‘self sufficiency’ - the latter sometimes referred to by the more modern ‘sustainability’.
Working to any of these values demands communal mobilisation and perhaps instinctively, many local activists see interacting and mobilisation in terms of getting people together. Getting people together is very important – but digital engagement is as critical and offers huge opportunities to increase local franchises.
Getting a larger franchise, and understanding what people care about – what will turn them from digital activists to ‘physical’ activists - is at the core of Neighbourhood Planning, Asset Transfer and Our Place.
Neighbourhood Plans once completed, become ‘made’ by local referendum. To succeed in the referendum, groups need to have engaged with as wide and diverse a franchise as possible throughout the planning process. Neighbourhood planning groups need to inform, consult and disseminate information on the planning process. It is a test of commitment, logistics and stamina.
Digital tools make the logistics simpler and bring more of the community into contact with the process.
When it comes to making the case for an Asset Transfer, the wide franchise is important for two key pillars of any bid - to demonstrate that there are tangible community needs, and to demonstrate that there is a wide enough interest in the proposals to build a lasting supporter and user-base, creating sustainability.
Our Place is about assessing local issues and needs that aren’t being met in the current structure of services, and this takes considerable community consultation and engagement.
Digital tools simply make mobilisation easier - email, mailing list management, displaying plans on a website - all simple and effective. Using tools like our own Commonplace to record public sentiment and need – the evidence-base for a Neighbourhood Plan, or an Asset Transfer bid – is collaborative, transparent and effective.
Then there are wonderful tools to help organisers collaborate with each other, overcoming their different patterns of business. Google Drive is brilliant for collaboration on documents, presentations and numbers. The more specialist Loomio (from a New Zealand social enterprise) is a great tool for making decisions without the group actually being in the same physical space.
Online materials are available to anyone, anytime - and having public platforms that are ‘always on’ is a great compliment to a two-hour public meeting. One American city described the change that openness brings as being a move from:
DESIGN - PRESENT - DEFEND
OUTREACH - DIALOGUE - DECIDE - IMPLEMENT
For community groups, the conflict model was never a good idea, but the lack of collaborative tools meant that we all sometimes fell into the familiar pattern. Now, it is much easier to avert this risk.
Online tools are great for changing the typical demographic of community engagement. This table is from one of Commonplace’s Neighbourhood Plan platforms and shows the age profile of Commonplace users, compared with people who came to public meetings (in a very civically-engaged neighbourhood):
These figures show clearly the complementarily between digital tools and face-to-face activities. As time progresses, the likely pattern is that digital will be even more effective, as more and more people are drawn – or pushed – to getting used to digital tools.
And it is not too far a stretch to suggest that under 40s might have a very different approach to building new homes – which they needs – compared with the settled 60+ year-olds. Miss out on digital and you could miss the strength of feeling on one side of this debate.
Choose your digital tools carefully - take your time, aim to select ‘once and well’ and you’ll reap dividends for years. When you consider the plethora of tools available, I suggest using three basic criteria:
- Recommendation - has someone you trust and understand used a tool well and recommend it?
- Have you someone in your group who has expertise with a tool, or is keen to acquire and use the expertise?
- What is the cost? many tools are free, or almost free. But it may be worth paying for really good consultation infrastructure.
I would recommend community groups to go ‘Digital First’ - although not digitally exclusive. Good use of digital tools will save time, conserve energy, encourage you to be systematic and bring you a little closer to the community organiser’s trump card in dealing with Authorities: being irrefutable!