We won't lie about this. Completely changing how you engage with citizens as part of your transport work is hard. It is a long, challenging, and often frustrating process to go through.
But the fact that you want to do it makes it worth it. And that desire will carry you through the times when this change is bad.
Over the last few weeks, we have given some hints on how you can tweak your existing engagement processes to get more value out of them. Measurement, citizens assemblies, hacking traditional consultation, and public meetings. All good stuff. But all playing at the edges. You need to start something more radical.
If you are in a situation where your local authority has identified that it needs to do community engagement better - congratulations, you truly are in a priveleged position! Your job will be so much easier. But for most of us, that is not the case. So what do you do to change things up when you are the lone voice calling for it?
Be realistic and idealistic
The first thing is to get in the right mindset, and set your expectations as to what you can achieve. You will need to play the long game to change people's hearts and minds, and demonstrate the value of what you do.
From our experience, just the process of starting on a major bit of public participation to prove your idea will take at least 9 months. You have to win people over just to get a trial going, and that takes time before you consider doing the business case. To get one other senior manager fully signed up will probably take 12-18 months. Everyone? At least 2 years.
Your idealism will drive your passion, which will be essential to getting this done. But people do not change their minds quickly, and need convincing all the time until they are signed up. Keep people updated on your success and issues. Show your enthusiasm, and spend time explaining the idea to them. And do it again. And again. And again. Until you are sick of doing so.
Few people have their mind changed by a sudden Eureka moment. Advertisers know that a constant drip feeding of the message is more successful over time compared to a big bang and then nothing. Take that mindset to your work.
A few passionate allies is better than a lot of interested people
This was a big learning that we had from organising the Transport Planning Camp. A lot of people will say they are really interested in the idea and want to be involved. But only a few will come through be a meaningful ally who you can rely on. Seek them out, and hold onto them.
In an ideal world, these allies will be in senior management positions. But a good ally is a good one regardless of their position. Not only will you all work together to actually put what you need to do into practice, but they are an invaluable support network for you. Sharing war stories and laughing in the face of adversity helps far more than you think it does.
What helps cement this is having a defined goal to work to - an event is usually a good way of doing this. Or it can be as simple as having a common aim, and a commitment to getting together for coffee once a month.
Understand your own power
It is easy to feel powerless, especially when the manager says no. But you have far more power than you give yourself credit for. You just need to understand how to use it.
Understanding the power dynamics, as well as where formal power actually lies, is probably the best thing you can get your head around. Who influences who? Who is the dominant voice at board meetings? Who do the decision makers trust most? What are your personal relationships with the decision makers like? Are they easily persuaded.
It is a good idea to visualise this if you can. Draw a spider diagram on a peice of paper with all of the key decision makers that you can think of, with you in the middle. Visualise the relationships between the different decision makers - say a different colour pen representing the strength of their relationship. Write where the formal decision making power lies, and for what.
Just this exercise will give you an overview from which you can plan. You will see people to avoid, who would be sympathetic to your view, and who you can target for the biggest impact. And then what you can do to exercise your own power in a way that has the biggest impact.
The best case for change is change itself
This is so cliche. But it is true. If you want to show the case for change, then you have to show it. That means securing time and resources for a small trial of your approach. Trials are great. For a limited amount of effort and resource you can prove an idea (or disprove it - its a trial after all). But when you make the case it has a huge advantage over a worked up project - you sell it based on the problem, not on the solution.
The way our brains work is that we almost always focus on the problems and challenges first, before the solutions and the positives. That's what comes from thousands of years constantly monitoring for threats from animals that can eat us. By focussing the case for your trial on how bad the challenge is, 80% of your battle is won. The remaining 20% is you stating how your trial could - if given the chance - help to overcome this.
For example, if you are having problems reaching a particular transport user group, you may wish to pilot a user survey delivered in partnership with a local community group who works with that group all the time. By stating how hard it is to reach that group, and how this limited trial could get some really useful insights on that group and prove whether or not the concept works, that is a compelling case.
Finally, plan for afterwards
You have done a pilot. It has gone well and you have all the evidence that you need to make community engagement the heart of your transport work. But this is where a lot of projects fail. They do not plan for afterwards, and ensuring a lasting impact.
Think about the practicals first. Chances are you won't have any more dedicated funding, or much time, to continue the work immediately afterwards. So think about how you will continue to convince people of the merit of this work afterwards. And do this before you start, so that you can build it into the work of your project (e.g. inviting key decision makers to a workshop).
How will you continue to convince people post-trial? Will it be possible? And if not, should you go for another trial instead?
Also, plan for failure. Your trial may fail completely, and may undermine your case for further work. Think about what this will mean for how you plan your changes in the future, and at what point it may be best to call it a day.
Change is hard. Extremely hard. But anything worth doing has always been hard to do. And the best thing is that people have done it before. Here are our key lessons for what makes for successful change.
In every profession you get these old adages - accepted wisdoms about how the world works, and the attitudes that are impossible to shift. Transport planning and community engagement have a few of them. But there is one that they have in common that, more than most other things, drive how things are done.
You are what you measure.
The key performance metric - whether it be number of bicycles along a road or the percentage of people travelling sustainably - drives almost everything. It is the purest interpretation of what you are trying to achieve. Something to which all actions should contribute towards.
Community engagement is no different to this. When you are planning how you engage with citizens, you have to be able to demonstrate the impact of your engagement. Warm, fuzzy feelings about how well it went, and informal feedback saying you did a good job does not do that in a defendable way, sadly. Nor does telling anyone quite how many people came through the doors at your public exhibition.
You need KPIs to show what did made a difference. You need KPIs over time to show that you have tried different things to engage with people, and this is the impact of what you have done. So how on Earth do you choose the right one?
Think about what you want to achieve from your engagement over time
This is such an obvious bit of advice. But we are always amazed at how people spend ages thinking about their objectives for their community engagement activity, before just counting the number of people who attended.
Come up with one KPI for each of your engagement objectives, and weave how you will monitor that into your plans for the engagement activity. Do not leave it as an afterthought, because if you do then the data you collect will be next to worthless. Few people voluntarily complete a survey form.
Even better, think about how you can standardise that data collection across your activities. So that you are not having to reinvent the wheel all the time.
Collect attitudes, not just opinions or demographics
It is really easy to ensure that you have a cross section of people attending based on simple demographic information, and how your activity compares to others. It is also really easy to ask people for their opinions - hey, you are doing it through this exercise aren't you?
But had you thought about attitudes? How are you making sure that who is taking part in your engagement activities reflects a diversity of worldviews? How can you be sure that as well as the ardent cyclists, you also had the Jeremy Clarkson's of the world represented.
Needless to say that this is an extremely tricky thing to do, especially when you don't have a baseline already. Except you may have. Your public engagement team are likely to be running an attitude survey of citizens all the time, asking for their general attitudes on everything from the state of the world, to how positive they feel about the world. Hey, we even have the British Social Attitudes Survey. Pick a metric, and think about the ways you can ensure that different people with different attitudes are represented.
Measure engagement, not activity
The number of people who I have seen set up a wonderful consultation website, and then just monitor the number of visits is infuriating. A shop always counts the number of sales that it makes, not the number of people looking in the window, and you must take the same approach to measuring the impact of your engagement.
Online this is easy. Using systems like Google Tags means that not only do you count the visits, but you can look for specific activities that you want people to do. For example, rather than counting the website visits, why not count the number of times people posted comments, or sent theirs in through an online form? That way, you are measuring what matters.
Offline and in the real world this is more tricky. You can count the number of feedback forms, the number of ideas generated per attendee at a workshop, and the tone of that engagement. All are difficult to do well, and are ripe for your experimentation. It is something that we are still experimenting with ourselves.
Defining what is a good KPI is an art in itself. And in many respects there are no right or wrong KPIs. Even measuring the number of people who have turned up is not a bad metric per se. But too often we focus on counting things, and surveying what is most tangible. Because it is easy. Your KPIs for your engagement activity should stem from what you want to achieve, not from what is possible. Otherwise, how will you know if you are achieving it?
We know what it is like. Even if you put in all the effort to run engaging workshops, creative online surveys, and you may have even deployed virtual reality and your public exhibitions. But at some point, you still have to run consultation the traditional way – a 12 week consultation, where people can write in or email their views to you.
And local authorities still receive a lot of comments that way. Recently, I spoke to a strategic transport body that received over 100 responses to a policy document as part of a consultation. Responding to each one individually is a time-consuming and intensive task.
Luckily there are ways by which you can hack this. Where you can properly consider the comments, respond well, and cut down on the time that you spend responding to them.
Set up a response process
Planning is everything. The worst thing that can happen is for messages to pile up in the inbox and in tray, to be dealt with once the consultation closes. So take the time to set up a basic process before your consultation goes out, which manages each message as it goes through. Then set up a rota with all involved in the consultation process, and stick to it.
When I have managed inboxes for consultations, I have split them into 4 folders. These are:
Then, i know that any email that is in the inbox itself has not been dealt with, and is in most need of attention.
Where there has been more than one person working on the responses, keep the same folder structure as above, but as sub-folders under a folder for each person.
Take the time to acknowledge receipt
This seems counter-intuitive. How is taking more time to acknowledge receipt of someone’s comments saving time? Simple. An information black hole is one of the worst things for consultation.
By saying thank you, and importantly giving a timescale by which you hope to respond to them in detail, you are saving yourself by stopping them from chasing you later when you tell them nothing. Also, people will actually like the fact you have acknowledged them.
Whatever you do, DO NOT set up an automated email with a standard response. That is lazy, and gives the impression you are fobbing them off. Nor do you need to type a different acknowledgement each time. A good hack is to have a selection of 10 pre-prepared acknowledgement responses in a document, and when an email comes in, copy and paste one of them and send it.
Hack your reading
We’re sorry to say this, but you cannot get away from reading the responses. But there are ways that you can make it easier, and boost your reading speed at the same time.
Firstly, reflect on when during the day your concentration is the best. For most people, this is usually the morning, often during late morning after the body has warmed up and the brain has got into its rhythm. It is often best to avoid reading responses in the afternoon, as your brain begins to tire.
Also, do other reading apart from just the consultation responses. The best way to improve your reading speed is to…read! Read magazine articles, newspapers, books, something that you enjoy reading. And it will boost the speed at which you read other things.
You should also not read the responses in your head. This is really hard to do, as we are taught to read by speaking the words, and we carry on this trait by speaking the words in our heads. This substantially slows down your reading time to the pace at which you speak. So practice not reading in your head, or distracting the internal voice by playing music.
Finally, whatever you do, do not read a passage several times. This means that by the time you read a response once, you have in fact read it several times because you have been constantly going back over words. Do not do this. If you must, come back and read the whole thing again later.
Categorise the issues raised, and form basic responses for each of them
By the time that you have read many responses, chances are you will notice very similar messages coming through. People want buses improved, they have an issue with a particular junction, or even they have literally copied and pasted a letter sent by someone else. Use this to your advantage.
Craft a basic response to each of these issues raised. Almost a common structure to how you will respond to that issue. But do not copy and paste that specific response to each person. Use it as a basis to provide a more personal response.
For example, instead of responding with…
“Improving walking and cycling infrastructure across the city is a priority as identified in the Local Transport Plan.”
…use that response as a basis to say…
“Improving walking and cycling infrastructure in your neighbourhood is a priority as identified in your neighbourhood delivery plan.”
Subtle changes, without having to type out the same sentence again and again.
Often, it is such small changes that are seemingly insignificant that can save you a lot of time as you respond to consultations. Without giving your citizens the bland, general responses that make them feel like they don’t care. Give them a try, see what you think.