Do a job badly enough and you won’t be asked to do it again. That’s a commonly held belief, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I took TERRIBLE photos during vox pop Wednesdays in my first year as a journalist at the Hamilton Press. No matter what settings I tried, I couldn’t get the hang of the flash manual camera.

Yet, back I was sent each week. I guess no one else fancied accosting strangers in the street to ask them a random question, and then ask to take their photo to include the paper, along with their name.

Surprisingly, most people said yes to taking part — and that’s also what happened late last year when I had a number of assignments which entailed launching forth and asking strangers for their views on some council issues. To be honest, it did feel a bit odd and I had to force myself to turn up that first morning. However, once I got into the swing of it, it was a nice change from my more usual, solitary occupations of writing and editing.

Here are five community engagement options to consider when you need feedback on your project: on-site surveys, emails, letters, phone calls and face to face meetings.

Community engagement option 1: on-site survey

If your job is mostly a behind the scenes one, but you could benefit from feedback on a proposal or an issue you’re working on, it’s worth considering doing an on-site survey. That’s because you will hear from a proportional range of people about an issue. (Excluding the ones who skulk past you, desperate not to be approached!)

This contrasts with other forms of engagement which are also valuable (such as asking for written feedback, or for people to come along to a meeting). These options take more personal effort to respond, so you are only going to hear from people who are directly impacted or committed to seeking changes.

What to ask

If you do decide to undertake a survey, plan your questions. Aim to keep the first question as open as possible so you’re not trying to steer the responses in a predetermined direction, and limit yourself to just two or three key questions. (You can note obvious things such as age group yourself, if that’s useful data, without the need to ask.)

Get straight to the point with the first question. This is different from a pre-arranged face to face interview, where you have time to ask a few easy, introductory questions to warm up and build rapport, before launching in to the main issue.

Here’s a suggestion. “I’m so and so from x council, and we’re keen to hear what people think of xxx.” You will be very aware of repeating yourself — but don’t mix up your language too much, because that will affect the consistency of the responses. And remember that each person you talk to is only hearing that question for the first time.

In most cases you won’t need people’s names, or their work roles, but if you do ask for this information, also ask them if you can use their name and/or organisation in your reporting back to council.

What to wear

While it will be valuable to have your council badge on (if you are a staff member), aim to dress in a way that looks similar to the people you will be talking to — which may mean more or less casually than normal, depending on who you need to hear from.

Community engagement options 2 and 3: emails and letters

If you know who is directly affected by an issue or a council proposal, letters and/or emails are a very efficient way to gain more in-depth, qualitative feedback, while taking into account it will be mostly those people who are seeking changes who will feel motivated enough to reply. Here’s a basic structure for your email and/or letter.

  • What’s happening.
  • Why you are writing to them (why you think this issue is of interest to them).
  • What you would like their views on (explain this concisely within the body of the letter or email where possible, so they don’t have to read detailed attachments unless they want to).
  • The different ways they can provide feedback (eg online, by email/letter, by phone or in person).
  • What happens next, how their information will be used, and any further opportunities for input.

Community engagement option 4: phone calls

Phone calls are a really good option when you would like to hear from people who are not directly affected by the issue or proposal (and therefore have no strong personal motivation to write to the council, or to turn up at a meeting) but have valuable information or opinions to share. This includes people working in a relevant field with expert or local knowledge, but who are short on time. Contacting you is likely to be a ‘nice to do’ and therefore low on their ‘to-do’ list.

In these situations it’s good to prepare questions ahead of time which quickly get to main point, but phone calls do give you the opportunity to diverge to other questions, as needed, giving you more in-depth, qualitative information.

Community engagement option 5: make time to meet face to face

Face to face interviews take more time, but can be extremely valuable, particularly where there have been ongoing concerns, or it is a significant issue for someone. It gives you the best opportunity to fully understand the impact of an issue or proposal on someone, and to show them that you genuinely care about their point of view. It can mean that something which has been an interesting topic, or just an issue to get sorted and off your desk, becomes much more important to you when you grasp its emotional impact on someone else.

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