Change can be unpredictable, requires considerable effort, and if done properly needs to be based on the council’s core goals with strategic planning, system design and implementation, investment, and training for staff. Which means there’s a temptation for councils to keep community engagement at the level it has always been, with input from a small, vocal segment of the community, heavily weighted by older white men.
Be brave – take the leap!
If a council’s general style of communication with the community is defensive, combative or technical, taking that approach online won’t help. In fact, it is likely to increase the level of tension between the council and the community, and damage the public’s perception of
council’s contribution and role. As well as the technology, designing communication systems requires multiple pieces that work together and support each other. As with all effective organisational communication, there needs to be consistency of messaging and approach, with parameters such as who will respond, and in what timeframe. And when necessary, what resolution processes will be deployed when problems come up. To achieve this takes a solid understanding of why a council wants to engage its community.
Cardinia Shire Council has been one local government that recognised social media and online tools are key to expanding the council’s reach into the community – especially to younger people and women – to build a sense of community and involvement far beyond the traditional audience. According to Tim Cooper, Team Leader of Community Strengthening at Cardinia, ‘We wanted to diversify our methods of engagement to reach a much wider cohort. With a challenging budget to put together, it was the right time to focus on getting input from the community, and with the Big Budget Brainstorm we created a project that encompassed an online forum, social media, live information sessions and a town hall meeting. It was a whole of council effort – Comms, Community Strengthening, Corporate Services and Councillors took part in the strategy and planning. Many junior employees helped facilitate the information sessions.’
How the online engagement works
To facilitate the online and social media engagement Cardinia Council worked with OurSay, an online community platform provider connecting communities with decision-makers. To support Cardinia's goals, OurSay created a self-service community engagement platform
nested in Cardinia’s website. This Forum page invitedmembers of the community to make suggestions for inclusion in the coming budget to council. Individuals could then like and share that suggestion on their own social media platforms to garner attention and support
for their ideas, asking people to go to the forum page and comment on or like their ideas. This is exactly what happened for one community member who had previously started a Facebook running group. His idea, which he posted on the forum page and then shared
via social media, was to get council to add some signage for runners around the circuit in the park, and some strategically-placed drinking fountains for his group and other like-minded souls (pun intended).
Support for the idea – as measured by the number of likes and positive comments on the
forum page – from members of the running group and the wider local community grew
as (digital) word spread. And it rated in the top 10 suggestions received on the forum.
This meant, the originator of the idea was invited to the town hall meeting to present
their idea to Council. ‘We didn’t guarantee we’d implement the ideas in the top 10, but we did make a commitment to listen and discuss the possibilities, and to share the issues, risks and constraints faced by Council,’ said Tim Cooper. ‘The new signage and water fountains was one of the suggestions we were able to implement.’ The town hall meeting was widely advertised with community members invited to register online and attend. OurSay filmed the town hall meeting and made it available to watch online.
How can the council capitalise on interest in drinking fountains? Sometimes, it’s the small grassroots changes that people, or customers, or voters, don’t expect, that actually get their attention. This initiative came as a suggestion from the community, and reached a demographic that probably hadn’t had much to do with local government before. It moved focus from rates-rubbish-roads to a story about quality of life, community building and well-being. Via the Forum and social media, people who don’t typically get consulted on council matters, got consulted. And they saw a positive result. How might that impact individuals’ willingness to take an interest? How does it influence community perceptions of council?
Making the connection last
Every social media user who supports or comments on a particular topic on the Forum
receives notification of any responses to their comment, and updates on the topic such as
if it is passed. Input doesn’t just disappear into a black hole as it once may have seemed to.
The other essential aspect of the Forum is the data collected, including year of birth, gender, email and postcode. Later, using the topic the person engaged on, plus the other data, council is fully equipped to reengage with this resident again on future initiatives that may impact or interest them.
Seeding the next initiative
In the move to governance – as opposed to government – gathering community support
and convincing stakeholders of the desirability of a given initiative is essential. Often the
problem is getting the message out to the right people. Who will this impact? Who will be prepared to advocate for this? But what if, council had an existing seeding army of citizens
to fulfill this role? Another advantage of having the data on who is engaging with the various platforms is it provides rich fodder for internal discussions on priorities and effectiveness, allowing councils to be more dynamic in their responses as the feedback is so immediate.
Using the data they already have – on gender, age, areas of interest, and willingness to engage, many councils, including Cardinia, now have the capacity to quickly and effectively engage community members. That will be essential when the hard questions of priority and direction need to be faced.