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?