Community engagement is founded on the democratic principle that anyone, whose life or community is impacted by an issue, an event or impending change should have a say in the decision-making process around it.
A considered engagement processes must therefore be front of mind for any business or organisation, and carefully planned from the outset, not treated as an afterthought.
Be it expanding a retail outlet, developing a commercial precinct or a freight hub, or planning a solar farm, it pays to develop and implement community and stakeholder engagement strategy to;
- help raise community and stakeholder awareness of a planning proposal;
- encourage open and genuine dialogue with community and other stakeholders;
- build trust by responding to community interests, concerns and issues; and
- ensure an approach that aligns with a State or Territory authorities’ best practice community and stakeholder engagement guidelines.
- Go where the people are. Community engagement is centred around the community and the people in it, so people should be at the centre of your engagement.
- People want to talk to people. Now more than ever human connection is fundamental. This is when you leave your expert self at the office and listen to understand, without bias or judgement, taking in the good, the bad and the ugly.
- Having boots on the ground is essential. It shows the community that you care about what they think and want to hear from them directly. Regardless of whether you are at a town hall meeting or speaking with locals at the shopping mall, being there will provide rich insight into wants, needs, and thoughts. When it comes to major projects, the community values true two-way consultation with the proponent. The information collected is valuable and can be used to help inform a better planning proposal for a site expansion or an infrastructure project.
- Community sentiment can be summed up in a few quick conversations. Trending thoughts and concerns won’t take long to emerge. You may receive overwhelming support for a project, but it is always fascinating how, no matter how minor the issue with a proposal is, it is verbalised the quickest.
- It’s “old school” and “new school”, not “old school” versus “new school”. You can have both. The community engagement landscape is ever changing with tools, practices and methodology changing significantly over the last two decades. Although as a community we are becoming more tech savvy and connected online, particularly during the pandemic, we must incorporate “old school” techniques such as workshops, coffee meetings, door knocking, letterboxing and stalls to extract information from your target audience.
However, online community engagement must be front of mind. Online platforms are a cost-effective way to maximise your reach, and typically, a website and email address enables information sharing and conversation with people who – for whatever reason – are not able to meet in-person.
Monitoring social media to keep a finger on the community pulse is also a good idea.
- Diversity of voices paints a fuller picture. Even in the smallest communities and towns, people know people and can wear many hats. It is critical to speak with a varied range of stakeholders to ensure everyone feels heard, included and valued.
Ultimately, you want to reach a point where people are informed, feel heard and their concerns addressed. This may mean some compromises but having the community and stakeholders consulted and engaged will mean they are more likely to become invested in seeing the planning proposal progress and the approval process completed.
Jessie is an award-winning community engagement practitioner who also brings experience in communication and advocacy strategy and implementation.