Challenges and opportunities for embedding engagement within councils

Imagine flicking a switch and suddenly your entire council organization understands the value of community participation. It would be life-changing: buy-in would be easy, project managers would be knocking on your door rather than you having to chase them down and, above all, you’d have happy residents and businesses because they collaborate on council plans. What a dream!

Recently the City of Canterbury Bankstown and IAP2 brought together around 60 engagement practitioners from NSW councils to hear about our experiences along with those of Inner West Council and City of Sydney, and to talk about the challenges and opportunities for realising this dream. Here are just a few of their ideas.

“Influencing decisions is hard enough internally, let alone for the community!”

  • Insist on importance of engagement at all levels. Refer to the Local Government Act, feedback from community, and best practice from other councils and organisations like IAP2.
  • Create and promote a documented set of engagement principles and values.
  • Engage deeply throughout projects, rather than consulting right at the end – then your engagement will guide the project.
  • Find new ways to engage silent members of the community, such as by piggybacking off other things happening in the community or run by your council.

“How do we get people to understand what engagement is?”

  • Suzie Djordjevic from City of Canterbury-Bankstown shared our Engagement Champions program. 24 people from across the organization are taking part in quarterly learning and sharing sessions intended to build understanding and interest in engagement in every corner of council.
  • Create a culture where staff value their role in communications, engagement and customer service, working collaboratively internally to build supportive narratives and recognize staff.
  • Be proactive about developing education and awareness programs to equip staff with engagement.

“People only think of engagement at the last minute when they’re ready to go on exhibition”

  • Prue Foreman from Inner West Council said they are working to incorporate engagement as a consideration in the organisation-wide project management framework.
  • Decentralise ownership of engagement so that you’re playing a guiding role (rather than doing all the work!). Offer your assistance during planning and show how engagement will add value to their project.
  • Have a central online ‘Your Say’ portal so that everyone has an idea of where to start. Make sure you’re the gatekeeper of this portal, which means all engagement goes through you.
  • Be clear on the process of engagement: develop plain-language user guides and toolkits so that everyone knows the steps to follow.

“Getting buy-in for engagement is next to impossible”

  • Yvette Andrews from City of Sydney recommended focusing on relationships. Identify where your key relationships are – both internal and external – and build and foster strong relationships.
  • Regularly attend meetings with teams across Council to discuss upcoming plans and other issues.
  • Leadership buy-in is so important: ask for support from someone senior and collaborate with them to create exemplar projects.

“We can’t do all of this. We’re already too stretched!”

  • Share resources across councils. Our attendees were so open to sharing and building on the great work being done in the room. Put a call out, phone a friend, and ask for help!
  • Draw on digital tools where you can – especially a CRM (customer relationship management system) – to save you time.

The ideas don’t end there. IAP2’s Engaging with Influence training and the former ACELG’s report on Local Government and Community Engagement in Australia (from p. 52) are great next steps for gathering tools on this topic.

Resilient Sydney is building a network of local government-based community engagement practitioners. To get on the list, contact Kristin Gabriel: kgabriel@cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au.

About the author

Doug Millen is Community Engagement Officer at City of Canterbury Bankstown with a focus on capacity building projects to strengthen community participation in the LGA.