Are community engagement plans magically whipped up by the communications advisers at your council, or do you have to come up with them yourself? Even if they are mainly done for you, subject matter experts can definitely add value to them.
While there is no one structure that’s ideal for every situation, here are the matters to be considered when developing or contributing to an engagement plan. (If you prefer to listen rather than read, please click on the video below.)
Goals for engagement
It’s worth finding out if your council already has some generic engagement goals which you can adapt to your specific topic. A good place to look for these will be your council’s significance and engagement policy.
Summary of the project
I find it really valuable to summarise the key elements of the project, as this provides the context for the engagement, and leads naturally to thinking about who is likely to be most affected by the issues, or to have more than a general interest in the outcomes.
Create a list of people who are affected by, or have an interest in, your project, and note the specific impacts and interests for each stakeholder type.
Consider whether you are seeking to inform, consult, involve or collaborate with other people in order to complete your project. The appropriate level of engagement may be different for each stakeholder group.
Page 11 of the Queensland Government’s Community Engagement Toolkit for Planning outlines the full IAP2 spectrum of public participation, and includes useful definitions of what it means to inform, consult, involve, collaborate and empower, as developed by the International Association of Public Participation.
Pages 3–7 of the Shire of Northam Community Engagement Plan provides valuable examples of community engagement strategies for the three participation levels of inform, consult and involve. Guidance on choosing an appropriate level of engagement is provided on page 8 of the Shire Plan.
At this stage, I find it useful to populate the following sentence for each stakeholder type:
- Inform/consult/involve [who] on [what topic] by [how to communicate].
Here’s a fictional example:
- Consult [older people] on [audiobook preferences] by [using posters and survey forms in libraries].
Depending on the complexity of your project and the number of stakeholders involved, it may be too cumbersome to include this level of detail for each stakeholder in your final community engagement plan. Grouping common elements is a good way to reduce repetition in your engagement plan.
Methods of engagement
This Global CCS Institute document Establishing a Communication and Engagement Plan provides a useful list of methods to consider when developing your plan.
The notes on engaging with specific groups including older people and young people (on pages 53–57 of the Queensland document) are also worth reviewing when selecting your methods of engagement.
Glyn Walters (Marlborough District Council’s Communications Manager) notes it is well worth considering what opportunities there will be for face to face engagement, which is often overlooked by councils. He also advises that if one of your engagement methods is social media, you will need to consider how you are going to manage feedback received this way.
Review your engagement plan
The Queensland document has a useful checklist for identifying any gaps in your engagement plan (see pages 13–14).
Once you have come up with your ideal engagement plan, it’s time to consider your budget and the staff time available to implement your plan.
Glyn Walters says it’s important to have a project team in place to share the load of delivering the plan. This can include subject experts as well as people to facilitate workshops, prepare written communications, provide graphic design elements, and manage the digital aspects of the process.
If money and time are in short supply, consider what actions could be modified or removed from the plan while still achieving your engagement goals.
If you will be primarily responsible for implementing the plan, consider if there is anything on the list that you will dread doing. Is there someone else you can involve in the project who would be better at that particular engagement activity? If not, is there a way to modify the activity to be more achievable for you while still achieving your engagement goals?
How are you going to record feedback and then integrate feedback from all engagement methods? And, at the end of the process, how are you going to communicate the project outcomes to the people who participated in your engagement process?
What questions can you include in your plan to help you to reflect on whether you achieved your engagement goals? One way to do this is to copy over the original engagement goals and turn them into practical questions to reflect and report on at the end of the process.
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