Edward Moore writes for the Guardian on community engagement.
Tweets, blogs, comments, consultations: picking your way through the cacophony of community engagement is an important task.
The demand for community engagement in local government is reaching a fever pitch: legislation requires it; stakeholders insist upon it; citizen journalism drives it. Yet the benefit of this engagement isn't all one way. If councils can find meaningful ways to interact with residents, they will learn more about what they want and understand how to target their resources more effectively.
The problem is that the digital world is full of chatter. The sheer volume of noise created by tweeting, blogging, commenting, posting videos, creating GIFs and the general frenzy of activity on social media platforms can drown out the real views of the public on local issues. In fact, local government itself creates plenty of noise of its own with public meetings, consultation exercises, research projects and the published minutes of internal meetings. It is getting harder and harder for council to get to the crux of an issue simply by sifting through the vast amounts of information available – which itself is both costly and time consuming.
Lord Toby Harris, the former leader of Haringey council, admitted as much. "Keeping my finger on the pulse of public opinion was a difficult and arduous task," he explained. "The cost of gathering the information was high, and the lack of use of reports after a particular project had ended was a problem. With the current Freedom of Information Act requirements, a method of trawling all internal information would be helpful. Even better would be trawling outside sources to see if research findings are still valid six, 12 or 18 months on."
For councils, there is an opportunity to use new software to better understand their residents and cut through this meaningless "chatter". Local government can access new technologies that allow tweets, emails, comments and other digital information to be combined with an organisation's own existing data (such as minutes of meetings, formal letters to the council and research reports) and plotted on a map of the local area. These systems can even analyse the location, volume and meaning of debate on any given issue.
Understanding what is important remains a challenge. To know that thousands of people have tweeted about an issue is not particularly helpful; the content and sentiment is critical. By casting your net widely to include blogs, pressure groups, local media and online communities, a more complete picture will emerge. Understanding opinion can be the difference between public backing and backlash.
I am working with the Greater London Authority to develop a project called Listening to London, which explores these issues. The overwhelming lessons learned from this project, where our "Community Dashboard" helps to collate disparate pieces of information, are that no single information source or even group of sources provides the answer to your questions about what the community thinks.
Real insight into your community is achieved only when knowledge is gleaned from many information sets, by understanding the strengths and limitations of those sources, and then finally by combining this knowledge.
It is vital for local government to engage with their communities, and there are clear benefits that come from effective engagement. But to engage properly you must turn down the background noise and listen to the conversations that really matter. The time and tools to do this may seem expensive as local government faces an unprecedented austerity drive, but the cost of not engaging with your citizens will be far higher.
Edward Moore is chief executive of Symfonix, which produces a community dashboard tool to support community and stakeholder engagement