The most successful community initiatives are developed through a broad and open conversation with a wide range of stakeholders. The consultations and engagement exercises conducted by public bodies and developers can be seen as imbalanced, which leads to apathy. By contrast, we advocate a model of "Community Conversation" between equals. Whilst authenticity is key, it can be helpful to draw on professional expertise to manage the process.
A community conversation starts when someone asks a question or suggests something. As more people become involved it becomes increasingly meaningful and the results become more credible. Whilst it is tempting to jump straight to a solution, such as a building, it is important to establish what this is a solution to first. In order to do so, the conversation needs to be managed.
Some key tips for initiating and managing a community conversation:
- Research similar work already carried out to avoid duplication and "consultation fatigue".
- Reach out to existing complementary organisations and establish positive relationships.
- Start with very open questions and prioritise broad engagement over easy answers.
- Concentrate on what the project is trying to achieve first, then move gradually to discussing how this can be delivered.
- Prioritise building consensus in the long term over speed of delivery.
- Move at a pace that your organisation can sustain and ensure people are enjoying their involvement.
Engagement & Momentum
The form a conversation takes will depend on the community it is for. It must therefore be tailored to what people will engage with, but it is also important to be bold and try new things. One good criteria for success is that the process is enjoyable and community-building in its own right. Keeping things fun should keep people engaged and build momentum.
Some of the most successful ways to engage involve providing an enjoyable activity or series of events. When loosely based around areas of interest for the community, these events create an environment for conversations to take place intuitively. Whilst the discussion can be informal, it is also important to keep a record of what people say.
Building consensus is of the highest priority, and this can be done using formats such as a graffiti wall or "world cafe". There does usually come a time when these findings will need to be quantified, which is why the traditional model of engagement involves questionnaires. Responses to these are much more likely to be meaningful if care is taken to ask questions one-to-one.
Planning & Delivery
As a community conversation progresses, it should be managed though a decision making process. This should begin with very broad principles, then set themes and priorities, before deciding on actions. Having built some consensus around what the needs of the project are and how these might be met, the project will begin to move into the planning and delivery stages, but it is important to retain a broad involvement throughout.
As this transition is made, there is a risk that the more detailed decision making can become removed from the community. Whilst it can be more efficient for a smaller group to handle this, it is important that a link is maintained with the wider community, to avoid the risk of disengagement.
It is likely that any sizeable community project will require new investment, whether through grants, fundraising or revenue generation. This will be the point at which the veracity of the engagement work will be tested. Projects that succeed from this point forward to those that can demonstrate the authenticity of their work.