Engagement for local authorities is about having a meaningful dialogue in which all parts of the community feel heard and can influence their localities.
There is no one size fits all – there are multiple ways to engage, techniques and preferences continuously evolve, and each council has its circumstances, priorities, and local audiences.
However, the following ten recommendations based on proven best practice provide a broad framework for councils to consider when designing engagement with their communities:
1. The engagement approach is led from the top
The Leader and chief executive and their senior teams set the tone for the council’s engagement with its communities and stakeholders. It is important to involve them closely in defining the vision for engagement and identifying approaches to ensure these align with the council's overall vision and are supported organisation-wide.
2. Have clear responsibility for engagement within the council
Community engagement is an integral part of many council roles. However, to design and deliver consistent approaches, it is recommended that a single team sets the overall direction, with an accountable senior officer with engagement in their brief who represents the function at a strategic level.
3. Define your engagement strategy and agree this across the authority
This will serve as a statement of principles and influence activity, providing a route map and benchmark to measure success and demonstrate your commitment to the local community. It is essential to keep your strategy up to date and refreshed. This is distinct from the Statement of Community Involvement that guides consultation activity for all of those seeking to deliver physical change to buildings or spaces within the borough.
4. Be proactive through a vibrant events programme
Community engagement can provide opportunities for the community to raise issues, for the council and community to work together to realise opportunities, tackle challenges, and build community cohesion. Community events from the neighbourhood level to borough-wide and beyond have space for all these things and more.
5. Provide opportunities for the community to meet with senior decision-makers
Accountability and transparency are at the heart of local authorities’ role and provide opportunities for a direct dialogue between the community, and the council leadership (Cabinet Members / Councillor portfolio leads and senior officers) within a safe and secure environment all shows this in action.
6. Take the time to reach hard-to-hear communities, designing tailored approaches
For every council, some parts of the community will be more engaged than others. Local authorities need to engage proactively with the broadest audience locally and identify and proactively address barriers to engagement among hard-to-hear communities in their locality. After all, your responsibility is to all those who live, work, or visit the area.
7. Undertake a regular borough-wide perceptions survey
Survey research is a vital way to gauge views from across the local population and guide council priorities.
8. Partner with the local voluntary and community services sector
Volunteers provide a brilliant, skilled, and motivated local resource. Partnership working with the local VCS is valuable to serve community needs and building brilliant relationships with the local VCS can maximise the local authority’s reach.
9. Join up with other local public services to respond to community priorities
Communities are more interested in realising opportunities and resolving challenges than providing the solution. Local authorities can take a leadership role in their areas by joining up with other local public services such as the NHS and the police service to tackle shared problems and collaborate in responding to community concerns.
10. Make good use of digital technology
Online is the default means of communicating for many, and COVID-19 has accelerated this trend. There are many ways to engage digitally – from the local authority’s website to dedicated consultation and engagement portals to Teams and Zoom. Events held online can attract audiences that go well beyond a local authority’s usual reach, as those who may struggle to visit venues because of work or family commitments can join from the comfort of their homes.
Author: Matt Neylan, Community Engagement Practice Director for Westco Communications. Matt has twenty years’ experience in communications and engagement, both for agencies and in-house, and in the public and private sectors, with particular expertise in the regeneration, development and infrastructure spheres. He has worked on projects and programmes ranging from the London Olympics and multi-billion pound regeneration programmes to small ‘infill’ developments.
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