making the most of what people tell us

This article was written jointly with Drew Mackie of Drew Mackie Associates, who supply support services in community consultation and qualitative research in regeneration. The article was published in the June 2012 edition of the Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland’s journal Scottish Planner.

Much of the current debate on community engagement in planning revolves around better ways of engaging with people. Our discussions tend to focus on how we engage: the techniques that we use, from Facebook and Twitter to charettes, world café and many others. But what happens after engagement needs more attention. Ultimately, only successful delivery of engagement results will complete the cycle and lead to more trust, better engagement and better placemaking.

Most community engagement in planning is based around specific things, like a new Local Development Plan or a development proposal. This sounds logical. But actually it fails to recognise that it doesn’t give the time or depth needed to build trust, develop relationships and community-based solutions.

 Knowledge management

We suggest that the solution is to link up different consultations so that they share results. This means thinking about how the results of different consultations can be accessed: knowledge management.

In any one area, public agencies are likely to be consulting the public on a number of things at any one time – planning, public services, health, transport and so on. That will generate lots of information, much of it valuable to other departments or agencies, because it will contain community aspirations and issues that cut across remits.

How is all that information stored? Where is it archived? How can it be accessed by staff across the organisation, let alone in other organisations?

image courtesy of Drew Mackie

The diagram was prepared for a city authority to track its consultation results.

Despite having sophisticated systems for tracking numerical data, the local authority had almost no way to record more nuanced data derived from workshops, stories, videos, art and so on.

Most public bodies do not have the systems or resources to effectively archive the results of consultation and engagement. This is partly about storing information, and partly about access to that data.

What does this mean for how we work?

At the organisational level, there are a number of lessons for public agencies:

Create archiving systems that are open and accessible across your whole organisation and, preferably, with other agencies and the public
Ensure departmental silos share engagement processes and outputs
Develop ongoing relationships with communities
Create a culture where engagement outputs are as important as conventional factors like economic development, the natural environment and transport
Ensure that you use skilled facilitators, and give them confidence, responsibility and influence to act as honest brokers

How about staff or consultants engaging with communities? What should they be doing?

Co-ordinate your engagement with that of other departments and agencies
Brief yourself on previous community consultations, reports and views before designing an engagement strategy for a new project
See the project or plan that you are working on as part of a bigger picture of making better places – look at it from the community’s point of view
Always let communities know how their input has shaped plans and projects
Be a leader – both with your colleagues and clients (so that they take engagement outputs seriously) and with communities (so they trust you as an honest broker)

We all know that engagement techniques need to improve. But improving our techniques is only part of the solution. We also need better knowledge management of what communities tell us, and more joined-up thinking about how we engage and how we use the outputs.

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