It's a pretty exciting feeling to finish a project your team has been working on for months, maybe even years.
All those meetings and workshops you've held, the data you've crunched, it's finally come to a close. But, was it worth it? Did your process, if you had one, lead to better outcomes in the end? How do you move from sharing a dilemma to collaborating on solutions? It's an easy thing to say, but harder to get right. We all know a project is only as good as its plan.
Let's go back to the very beginning. You and your team have identified an issue, a question or an opportunity you'd like to discuss with the local residents and community. You know it will impact residents, businesses and some user groups. Maybe the goal is to build a new bridge, upgrade a major road or revitalize a popular park. No matter how large or small a project, planning is key. Where do you start? Who do you need to involve? How will you know it's been effective?
I'm going to show you why need to involve your community in the planning process. It's better to have your community on board from the start rather than telling them the project is happening and they have no say.
Remember, a consensus is not always the goal. Each person or group will have a different perspective or experience, so trying to make everyone happy is a fruitless task. Building understanding around the project why and how, and getting buy-in on the process may be a better place to start the conversation.
Step 1: Define the purpose of the project
Start by asking yourself questions.
What are you trying to accomplish? Who and what can influence the project or decision? To what extent should we engage with the community or our stakeholders - are they directly impacted/interested/invested/disinterested? How will you know if the result is successful?
Sometimes the answers may not be so obvious - Especially when you're in an organization and everyone has differing views. If you're part of a team, get everyone to share their perspective based on their expertize, values and experience. A software engineer will often have a different take on a situation compared to a community engagement officer. Everyone views things differently depending on values, beliefs, attitudes and job field. Analyzing our own perspective against others allows us to paint a wider picture of the problem at hand.
Once you have an overall idea on the purpose of your project, it's time to create the project objectives and scope.
Step 2: Build empathy and understand the dilemma from the community's view
There will always be a difference of opinion on how a project should proceed. Your organization and team are on board with the project, but how does your community feel? They live in the area. The project will have an impact on their lives, either directly or perceived. Not only will they face minor (or major) construction disruptions, but they're not even sure they want a change. Why them and why now?
Imagine coming home from work, and finding a letter in your mail from the local council about a shared pathway looking to be built near your place, or it may be a major park or street upgrade happening soon. You probably have a few questions. Why are these changes taking place? When can I have my say on all this? What does this mean for me and my family?
As an engagement practitioner, it is your job to guide these early, and sometimes difficult, conversations to build understanding and trust in the project and the process. Doing the miles in the early phases will pay dividends in the long run. Be clear about what people can expect, share the dilemma and be willing to listen. It's important to gain community understanding if you're proposing a change on a landscape, infrastructure or any other issue which will impact their daily activities.
Keep them informed from the start and make it clear you have mechanisms in place to listen to their thoughts, concerns and questions about this project.
Step 3: Make space for citizens to get involved early on
Don't go in with blinkers on and hope one engagement method will be enough.
Think about the project's purpose you identified in step one. What is the problem you are trying to solve? Do you want to gain your communities' thoughts and ideas for a strategic plan? Are you looking to gain trust and support on your project ideas? Go to where the people are - this comes back to understanding your community. How and where do they engage with each another? Facebook, Instagram, the shops or local park. A big part of your role as an engagement practitioner is to make it easy for people to understand a project or an issue so they can take part in a constructive conversation.
Remember, you have various groups of residents, business and stakeholders who will choose to be involved at different levels and stages of a project, and there needs to be room for them. Some prefer traditional communication and engagement methods such as one-on-one meetings, community forums or newsletter updates. Others will prefer online platforms to stay up-to-date and to provide feedback, such as social media, a dedicated project website and e-news updates. Our nine ways to increase participation article will help you form a list of tactics to implement.
Step 4: Understand the problem from the residents' perspectives and close the loop
Once you have residents' input, use this data to look at your original project problem. Did the community reveal any in new information? Did their feedback confirm what you had expected? What's next?
Sometimes the true issue won't be revealed until you have this information. Residents know the underlying issues of their area.
Community members could give you a new perspective on an idea or they might find a potential hurdle you didn't initially see.
Use this feedback to evolve your plans into a better more effective project solution.
Close the loop and provide feedback on what you took on board from the community. Often citizens say there's no point of participating because they weren't be heard anyway. Let civilians know you will take their thoughts' into consideration and follow up on it.
Infographics, email, social media announcements, flyers, video, pop-up stands. The options to spread feedback is endless.
Congratulations you can now focus on the solution
The project planning process can be time-consuming and lengthy but it's worth it. You've identified the problem, gathered your communities input and you're ready to put your project in action. Just remember the community engagement doesn't end here. You've passed the first stage. Now the real work begins. The project taking place. Take it one step at a time. Keep your community involved throughout the process and let them know the end result when the project has been complete.