Community Panels are rapidly becoming recognised as a valuable community engagement tool by many Councils across Australia.
Anne Sharp and Katherine Anderson from the University of South Australia’s Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science have published an article in the latest edition of the (Australian) Commonwealth Journal of Local Governance titled “Online citizen panels as an advance in research and consultation: A Review of pilot results.” The paper reports the results of a collaborative project between the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, the South Australian Local Government Managers Association, and three South Australian Councils. I am also aware of at least five New South Wales Councils that have established online panels in recent times; Newcastle, Port Stephens, Sutherland Shire, Port Macquarie Hastings and Parramatta as well as many examples in other parts of the world; for example Launceston Council, Surrey Heath Borough Council, and Angus Council.
There are lots of important findings out of the Ehrenberg-Bass study – too many to list them all here – so I encourage reader to visit the Journal website. The authors state in the article abstract:
The pilot results demonstrate that such an online panel model can be used effectively in the local government context. The panels achieved citizen membership wider than that historically seen in local government consultation and research, and were sustainable in terms of continued participation and high levels of citizen satisfaction.
The Panels clearly have a lot going for them. As with all community engagement methodologies, Community Panels have their limitations and therefore their “place” in the pantheon of tools depending on the specific engagement objectives. This is not a criticism of Panels at all, I simply believe that it is important to “black hat” all community engagement methodologies. As the authors note:
According to the [IAP2] Spectrum, the research and consultation examples discussed in [paper] would mostly be classed as ‘listening’.
The reason for this seems to be to lie in the Panels’ use of online surveys as the preferred tool for engaging the community. This reflects the market research orientation of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. The spectrum places surveys squarely under “consult” as a community engagement objective.The IAP2 defines the “consult” as:
To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives or decisions.
Surveys are a necessarily one-way form of communication. They are very useful for us to gather community opinion, they are unsuited for provoking community discussion, dialogue and collaborative thinking.
The question I ask myself is how can Community Panels be turned to the tasks of “Involving”, “Collaborating” and “Empowering” communities. Structuring and good survey, writing a good set of survey questions, making sure that the sample is statistically robust, and analysing the findings all require a particular set of skills. Engaging a community is a constructive conversation around a contentious issue requires quite a different set of skills, tools and methodologies.
My interest is in working out whether our tools can be usefully employed to help Councils get more value out of their Community Panels by using them as part of the community engagement process for projects with “involve”, “collaborate” and “empower” as their engagement objectives. We’ve come up with five ways we think online forums – like our EngagementHQ platform – can be rolled out.
- Closed Forums
- Targeted Forums
- Transparent Forums
- Transitional Forums
- Shared Forums
Closed forums are only accessible to Community Panel members. They are accessed by a unique login for each Panel member. Closed forums could be used in a number of ways by Panels. A cross-section of Panel members could form a community reference group for detailed discussions about an issue prior to a broader public engagement process. Closed forums could also be used for private discussions about sensitive topics. They provide the benefit of an open discursive space with the detailed demographic background of the participants.
Targeted forums are a sub-set of Closed forums. They are closed to all but a niche subset of the Community Panel based on the required demographic profile of participants. If you are after detailed design ideas for a new skate park without the “noise” that may occasionally accompany the development of such a facility, then it would be advantageous to target young people.
Transparent forums are visible to the entire community but only accessible to Community Panel members. They could be utilised to achieve at least two objectives, to drive up membership of the Community Panel by denying access to all but Panel members, and to demonstrate Councils’ commitment to transparent dialogue and debate.
A transitional forum would be used as part of a longitudinal engagement process. During stage one you might want to engage with Panel members alone to deal with process issues, limit policy options, or better understand the kinds of issues that are likely to come up during a stage two consultation which would be open to the broader community. Panel members would have been informed by the stage one process and should be in a position to dialogue with the broader community about both process and content issues.
A shared forum is open to the public and Community Panel members. They provide the best of both worlds. Council has a sample of citizens with a known demographic profile providing input which helps deal with any issues around the “representativeness” of the participants, while also providing a mechanism to involve the broader community and particularly the “activated” members of the community who are passionate about the issues.
That’s it. As always, comments and dialgoue very welcome.