Social Pinpoint is interested in what our colleagues in the engagement profession are achieving, the challenges they face and knowledge they can share about the profession. This week, we chat to Penny Amberg, who is the Community Development and Engagement Coordinator at Port Stephens Council.
Penny is passionate about community engagement and the important role it plays in how her organisation plans for and communicates with the community. Her background in psychology has given her a thorough understanding of human behaviour and years in marketing and communication, coupled with her love for talking to people has enabled her to build a successful Community Development and Engagement Unit within Port Stephens Council.
Penny loves her job and enjoys advocating for community engagement within the organisation. While at times she faces challenges and resistance from technical officers, she gets real pleasure from seeing these officers learning to not only appreciate the need for effective community engagement but flourishing in its execution. She also enjoys how her job enables her to be involved directly with her local community (even if it means talking shop while at the beach on a Saturday afternoon!).
As with any local government organisation, the projects that Penny works on vary considerably, from long-term planning strategies, to infrastructure programs, skate parks and controversial development applications. In her role, Penny needs to communicate to the community about the project, which often involves translating complex documents into plain English that can be understood by the the lay person. Penny explained that a difficult aspect of the job is ensuring that the community understands the process so that they are providing on-topic feedback. She also pointed out that it is extremely important in her role to advise the community that their comments will influence the decision, but ultimately it is the elected representatives or delegated officers who will make the final decision.
"Upfront planning of the engagement and communications strategy is vital"
Penny explained that for each project a Community Engagement and Communications Plan is prepared. Upfront planning of the engagement and communications strategy is vital, as it not only sets the parameters for how it will be done (often within the legislative requirements), but it establishes who will be undertaking the various steps in the process. As well as detailing how feedback from the community will be sought, it also states when and how information will be communicated to the public (Penny explained that 80% of the job is about communicating key information to the public). Having a CEC in place at the start of a project is not only a useful internal tool but can help if the engagement procedure comes under public scrutiny or when freedom of information requests are made, as it shows that Council had planned for and built community engagement in to the project at its initiation.
Penny acknowledged that its not always easy to get comments from everyone in the community. In Port Stephens, Caucasian people over 55 are the most likely demographic to provide feedback. Part of the challenge when preparing a CEC is to provide a range of methods that encourage a larger and more diverse demographic to be involved. Penny likes to mix the use of traditional media such as radio and newspaper with social media and online engagement tools. She has also found much success in face to face engagement techniques. Penny advised that
"the best way to engage with the community is by making it fun and easy"
The community at Port Stephens have responded positively to the increased importance the organisation has placed on engagement, with many community groups acknowledging the effort that Penny's team is putting in to this space. While the community may not always agree with the outcome of a project, they have been happy with how they have been involved in the process.
For community engagement professionals, there are many challenges - from how to optimise the level of on-topic feedback to ensuring that all members of the community are provided with an appropriate level of information. Penny believes that the key to effective engagement is understanding the behaviour behind how and when people are likely to respond and building an engagement strategy based on these behaviours. Penny's final words of wisdom for anyone in the community engagement field are that you need a sense of humour and a respect for your community and their opinions.