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Cut out the Chatter

(This article first appeared in Materials World Recycling  in January 2013)

The need for community engagement around the provision of public services is at a peak.  Legislation demands it, stakeholders insist upon it, citizen journalism drives it and waste management often sits at the heart of the debate.

Reactive consultation on emotive subjects, such as waste management, is difficult and often combative, subject to misinformation and sensational journalism.  Getting it wrong can at best lead to significant delay to a scheme progressing, or at worst collapsing.

What is needed is meaningful engagement rather than passive consultation.  If public bodies and commercial developers can engage in a meaningful way with their communities and discover what their concerns really are then resources can be more effectively targeted and concerns tackled head-on.

In a world that is full of chatter the first step in a successful engagement programme is to listen.  The sheer volume of noise created by tweeting, blogging, posting, videoing, and the general social media frenzy can often drown out the real opinions of the public to local issues. 

The key to understanding local communities is the ability to combine information from a wide variety of sources and use those findings to engage in a meaningful way, addressing issues of importance.

Lord Toby Harris formerly of Haringey Council said “When I was Council leader keeping my finger on the pulse of public opinion was a difficult and arduous task.  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 FOI requirements a method of trawling all internal information would be helpful; even better would be trawling outside sources to see if the research findings are still valid six, 12 or 18 months on.”

There are now technologies emerging, including the Symfonix platform, where tweets, emails, comments and other digital media information can be combined with an organisation’s existing data – such as meeting minutes, letters, research reports etc - and plotted on a map of a region.  These systems can even analyse the sentiment, location and volume of debate on any given issue. 

Understanding what is important still remains a challenge though.  To know that thousands of people have tweeted about an issue is often not particularly helpful; content and sentiment is critical.  By casting a net wide to include, for example blogs, pressure groups sites, local media and online communities a more complete picture will emerge.  Understanding opinion can be the difference between public backing or backlash.

Symfonix is currently working with the Greater London Authority developing a project called ‘Listening to London’ which explores these information issues.  The overwhelming lessons learned from this project - where the Symfonix ‘Community Dashboard’ enables the collation of many disparate pieces of information to better understand what people from across the capital have to say about issues that matter to them - are that no one information source, or even group of sources, provides the answer.  Real insight is only achieved when knowledge is gleaned from various information sets, by understanding the strengths and limitations of those sources and then combining knowledge pools together. 

In the waste management arena, this level of insight enables engagement to happen via multiple communication channels and from an informed standpoint.  Individuals engaged in debate will have access to accurate information, feel involved in the process and be able to react accordingly.

It is vital for both the private and public sector to engage when bringing forward waste management schemes, tuning out background noise and focusing on those conversations that really matter.  Time and tools are factors but the cost of not engaging will be far higher.

Top five tips for a successful engagement programme

  1. Listen, don’t broadcast – start your process by finding out what issues your community are already discussing.
  2. Use what you have already have in the way of emails, meeting minutes, letters, all research reports even if not immediately relevant.  Mine them for pertinent comment on the topic you are currently working on.  Put this into context by comparing it with what is being said online in both digital and social media.
  3. Remove information silos from your organisation; don’t throw away the bits you don’t use from your research projects.  You can spend a lot of money commissioning research so don’t just file it and forget it.  Use it to assess whether attitudes are changing or have remained static.
  4. Qualitative research is always more insightful than quantitative.  Where possible ask open questions rather than tick box selections.  Just make sure you have the capacity to process the results.
  5. Take the first step to transforming the information into knowledge.  Ensure you have the capability to analyse results by topic, sentiment and location to release the hidden messages.

 Edward Moore.