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Digital engagement in the pandemic: sharing the learning

visualisation of Alexandria Main Street

Online community engagement has received increasing attention during the last 2 years.  For some people it means yet more time on Zoom calls, for others it means Surveymonkey and social media.  The truth is that good online engagement should embrace all these things and more – and it should be tailored to suit the situation.

Using three examples, I’ll explore what good online engagement might look like.  I don’t have all the answers, but I do hope to get you thinking – and help us all improve how we engage, me included.

These examples have all taken place during the pandemic, but incorporate online engagement experience spanning almost a decade.  Digital engagement isn’t new: it’s been around for years. 

Before I start, big kudos to the wonderful Scoop team at Icecream Architecture who brought the tech knowledge, graphic skills and imaginative engagement skills that made these projects work.

Alexandria town centre masterplan

Alexandria, a small town in the Vale of Leven west of Glasgow, has a proud industrial heritage and identity.  But its town centre doesn’t reflect that sense of pride.  To tackle that, West Dunbartonshire Council has already invested heavily in new housing to repopulate the town centre and is looking to achieve more.  So, it decided to work out what to do by developing a new town centre masterplan.

The 6 month project was commissioned in 2019 but only completed in 2021. That it took nearly 2 years was triggered by community engagement being stalled by COVID.  It hit just after we had completed initial face-to-face ‘listening’ engagement with schools, town centre businesses, community groups, the public sector and at a community drop-in day.  

COVID stopped the community engagement process in its tracks – but also gave time to build much needed collaborative relationships between the local authority and local community groups. 16 months was spent building consensus and working relationships through many daytime and evening meetings on Zoom and Teams.  

That behind-the-scenes activity enabled us to relaunch the dedicated consultation website with proposals for the town centre in May 2021.  A dedicated mobile-friendly consultation website had always been part of our engagement strategy, and had been set up before COVID.  But all that changed with COVID, and the website became the focus of our community engagement.

Two things were special about that.

Firstly, the consultation proposals on the website were agreed collaboratively by the local authority and community groups.  That sounds simple but it meant that every word had to be agreed by everyone – a painstaking process, with a few hairy moments.  It was vital, because it built trust.  Signing off the website content was a very special moment for everyone involved – a tangible expression of collaboration.  

Secondly, the way of communicating proposals online is completely different from conventional approaches like display boards, presentations and workshops.  Simplicity and clarity are critical.  Many people access content on their phones, and will navigate away if you don’t hold their attention and get to the point.  That means good design, clear messaging and obvious calls to action.  I’ve learned so much about these things from Icecream’s superb Scoop team. 

screenshot of question from Alexandria consultation website

You can see the website at www.alexandria.town.  On the consultation page for the Town Centre masterplan, note the absence of long explanations and justifications (unlike this post, which is for a different audience!).  The interactive images speak for themselves, and the consultation questions (no longer visible on the site itself since the consultation closed) are simple and easy to respond to.  The shorter 2030 Vision section is leading towards a community-led Local Place Plan, and the website will be developed by the local community for digital engagement on that plan.

That simplicity served us well.  Feedback was good and the consultation results were very constructive for finalising the masterplan.  Headlines from the consultation responses are summarised as you scroll through the Town Centre and Vision 2030 pages, with a link to a consultation report for more details.

Huntly ‘Room to Thrive’ town strategy refresh

This is a Council-led refresh of Huntly’s ground-breaking 2018 strategy, which is happening at the moment and is led by Icecream Architecture.  In contrast to Alexandria, it is a short and sharp piece of work – to be completed in weeks rather than years.  The online consultation went live in early February for a month, after which a strategy update will be prepared for feedback.  The aim is to check and if necessary update the 2030 priority actions contained in the 2018 plan.  It is being informed by a Place Standard exercise in late 2021, again a refresh of one that was done in 2018.  

The consultation is taking place largely online through the www.huntly.town website set up in 2018 for the original strategy.  This mobile-friendly website has been kept updated with additional information since 2018.  The Ideas Bank was created in 2018 as part of the online engagement to prepare the original strategy, and has been kept live because it’s a useful open public source of actions and projects for the town.

screenshot from Huntly consultation website

On the home page there’s now a prominent call-to-action – the big blue button – taking you to the consultation page for the current strategy refresh.  Like Alexandria, it’s designed specifically to be as simple and engaging, to give just enough information without losing people.  Have a look and see what you think.  We’re quietly confident it will work well, but we won’t know for sure until the consultation closes in March.

Stratherrick and Foyers Community Action Plan

The last example is a community action plan south of Loch Ness.  It was prepared mostly in the first half of 2021 during lockdown rules, so the consultation was almost entirely online using a dedicated website: www.communityfuture.net.  

You can see a diagram and short animated video showing how the plan was prepared on the About page.  More details are in the full version of the action plan that can be accessed from the home page.  For an understanding of its effectiveness, check out this evaluation of the overall consultation process against the National Standards for Community Engagement.

One valuable feature of the website was the news page.  It was updated frequently as the plan was being prepared, with upcoming events, community survey results, video recordings of workshops and so on.  Every post was widely promoted through local social media so people could follow what was happening or get involved, complemented by house-to-house mail drops at key points in the process.  

Scrolling forward through those news posts from the start gives a neat chronology of how the plan was prepared, including a series of 10 community workshops with interactive online whiteboards for to present and scribe discussions. 

The site is soon to be revamped to move the focus onto how the plan is being delivered.

A lesson for me from Stratherrick and Foyers is that you can run community engagement almost exclusively online if you have to – but it takes time, creativity, good publicity and alternatives for folk who aren’t online.  I’ll come back to those last two points at the end.

Final thoughts

Most people in Scotland are online.  The two fundamental benefits of engaging them online were known long before COVID:

  • The reach of online engagement is much greater than traditional methods: we have evidence from website analytics on many projects showing the greater numbers and age ranges reached than equivalent non-digital methods.  
  • Consultation websites work well as repositories of information and communication channels – for example, the Huntly Room To Thrive website and Stratherrick and Foyers news pages.  

But…. not everyone is online.  A website is not enough on its own.  To be successful, I think it also needs to be accompanied by:

  • Really thorough publicity – the most effective ways I find are getting word out through local community networks, social media campaigns (very easy and cheap to do, using existing local networks) and house to house contact.  For Stratherrick and Foyers, we invested in 2 or 3 waves of house-to-house deliveries at key points in the work to make sure that every household knew what was happening, and constantly encouraged local folk to engage any friends or relatives who weren’t online.
  • Non-digital alternatives – I’m a great believer in constantly putting my name and phone number out there on leaflets and posters and encouraging people to call me (very few do, but those who do often aren’t online); and supplementing online by going to real events (visits to community groups, lunches, on-street events and so on).  In Stratherrick and Foyers again we regularly encouraged local folk to engage any friends or relatives who weren’t online.
  • An understanding of the limitations of online – my view is that online meetings are good for smaller group discussions with live scribing using online whiteboards or jamboards, but less good for big community workshops or drop-in type events where it’s difficult to replicate the qualities of face-to-face discussion.  Now that things are opening up again, I’ll be looking to organise community workshops or drop-ins again at key points where discussion and agreement are needed.  

That’s my personal take on where digital engagement is at the moment.  The three examples in this post have unpacked some of the specific opportunities and challenges of online, but there are plenty of things I’ve not covered – for example, greater use of video and voting.  

What do you think?  Please share your thoughts on Twitter, LinkedIn or below the line…


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