Digital Engagement: Overcoming Barriers

Leah Lockhart, Digital Democratic Engagement at The Democratic Society, reflects on BEFS recent event on barriers to community engagement in planning.

helloquence-61189Earlier this month I went along with a few of my colleagues from the Democratic Society to a talk hosted by BEFS to discuss a piece of research the Scottish Government had commissioned, Barriers to community engagement in planning: a research study. My colleagues and I are not actively involved in planning or built environment circles but we are public engagement practitioners so the research outputs and discussion in the room were very familiar to us.

Our mission at the Democratic Society is to ‘bring better democracy everywhere’ and although the word ‘democracy’ might conjure up images of politicians and voting, we are a non-partisan organisation working to strengthen and shorten links between citizens and the organisations that affect their lives. There’s a strange kind of comfort or solidarity in hearing people outside my professional networks articulate almost exactly the same problems I encounter in my day to day work. But it’s also very frustrating. The core issues brought out in Barriers to community engagement are not new, in fact they are evergreen. How can so many people talk so openly for so long about the problems of governments failing to carry out meaningful public engagement and never seem to make progress?

Barriers to community engagement is a very well presented and accessible document and the discussion about it at BEFS, led by John Lord of Yellow Book Ltd and Nick Wright of Nick Wright Planning, was very motivating. As a digital engagement specialist, I tend to parse everything through questions of how the internet or other digital technologies might help or hinder community engagement. Below are three things I can’t stop thinking about since the event. Each point is focused around the What Works- opportunities for practical action portion of the report (section 7.19, page 58 and figure 7-4) because we have a responsibility to act now.

  • Make the most of existing guidance and good practice: ‘The theory and practice of community engagement has been thoroughly examined and documented. There is no need to add to the existing body of guidance, we just need to apply it consistently and determinedly.’ Local authorities are especially stubborn in the belief that they are unique and this is a huge barrier to any kind of meaningful change or innovation in policy making or service delivery. Functionally, councils are the same but they are forever re-creating the wheel, especially when it comes to community engagement. By starting from scratch all the time, councils are creating distractions that keep them from actually engaging anyone. There is no end to information and practitioner communities online through which peer support, knowledge exchange and community engagement can happen. Resources could be much better spent leveraging existing networks and learning from others than creating new guidance or frameworks.
  • Connecting with the seldom-heard. This recommendation spells out some of the core tenets of digital engagement: ‘meet people on their turf and at the times that suit them best; offer a range of meeting times and venues; offer opportunities to participate in different ways.’ It also recommends ‘ensuring venues are wheelchair accessible; providing signing services; reimbursing travel costs and publicising events in languages other than English.’ The internet does not close and it is wheelchair accessible. It enables video for signing, subtitles for transcriptions and there are no travel costs to visit it. Our experience at Democratic Society of helping councils complement offline engagement with online engagement has demonstrated to us that people with unsociable working hours, care responsibilities, physical disability, anxiety about socialising and more, really appreciate an online pathway to participation. Increasingly, members of the public will expect to be able to communicate with their public services online and planning is no exception.
  • Using Plain English, effective communication and feedback. The report reflects feedback from survey participants that bad communication, terrible online services and way too much jargon are ‘seen as a means of excluding and intimidating ordinary members of the public’ and ‘ways in which local authorities ration participation in planning rather than actively promote it.’ It’s easy to suspect councils of being shady by not communicating well or not providing visible feedback loops but it’s my experience they don’t usually have the right skill sets to carry these things out. By being supported to learn better ways to engage online, to understand how online communities work and to realise the potential for greater transparency through having a strong online presence, planners could go a long way to being effective communicators.

I’m excited about the conversations happening right now in the built environment professions and I will be spending more time trying to link with people around community engagement in planning. I have a lot to learn from this new network about issues specific to planning but for members interested in good public engagement generally, we already have so much in common. Thanks to BEFS for welcoming us outsiders and for awakening my inner planning nerd!

Leah Lockhart