Community engagement is an essential and necessary step of any project. Apart from legal obligations, you want the customer- and community base on board with your development. But most people who have ran, attended or paid for community engagement sessions would agree that the process is often far from perfect. Townhall-style meetings with presenters who click through 45 minutes of slide after slide presentations do not invite constructive feedback. Nor does the process of inviting people into the process guarantee an even spread of participants. This often means that simply the most vocal, and those who were in a position to show up, get a say. This skews results and can leave the project exposed to one-sided opinions – not the most value for money, nor the most equitable approach.
Here’s what you should consider to get better value from your community engagement.
1. Deeply understand your demographics
Before you even start spending money on community engagement, spend time deeply understanding your demographics. How does a single mum in your community go shopping? When does a student take the bus to work and when do they take a ride share? How do elderly couples exercise, and where? If you know the answers to these types of questions as they relate to your project, you’re ready to engage. If not, invest the time to find the answers.
2. Go further with your questions
Now that you have considered your community on a more detailed level, it will be easier for you to anticipate the types of questions they may have about your project. This, in turn, will help you form the questions you want answered through community engagement. Knowing that people like or dislike a project is only sometimes enough. Most often you will want to have more gradation – what else do they need, why are they opposed to this aspect of the project, what would be of more value to them? Go deeper in your questions to get more out of your engagement.
3. Use qualitative and experiential tools
The last step is to broaden your toolbox. Quantitative tools, like surveys or polls, collect broad opinions that people have about a known issue. Basically, they help you quickly gather someone’s gut feel – do they like it, or not? But understanding communities’ needs in relation to a project requires tools that allow more nuance – questions like why, how, when and with whom. For this, you need qualitative and experiential tools. This includes one on one interviews, group interviews, observations, pop-ups and workshops. Each of these bring out deeper – and hence better – data for you than quantitative tools, like surveys would on their own.
Taking these steps not only gives you information on whether you’re on the right track with your project but can also give you additional data you may otherwise not have gotten.