An effective community engagement team, similar to a well-tuned orchestra, relies on a mix of diverse roles each playing their unique part in harmony. As for most teams, the key to success lies in bringing together people with different personalities, skills, and abilities. We sat down with Hugo De Brouwer, CitizenLab’s Head of Government Success, to discuss which roles and skills an organisation needs to take participation to the next level.
Based on our experience working with 400+ local governments and organisations, we’ve noticed a definite shift. As Hugo put it, “More and more cities are beginning to understand that building a successful engagement team isn’t just about having a group of people; it’s about having the right team structure and the right skill sets in place.
Having had the opportunity to observe this trend and participate in its evolution, we’ve seen that the first part of the puzzle is internal organisation and roles – deciding which roles you’ll bring together to form a team. In parallel, it’s important to ensure the people you bring together have a diverse set of skills.”
Who do you need to bring to the table?
Building an effective community engagement team within your local government’s framework can be approached in two ways. Hugo noted, “If you’ve got enough budget or people-power, you can hire or set up a dedicated team whose sole job is to focus on community engagement. It’s like having a team of experts that you hire or develop internally, solely dedicated to participation.
However, from our experience, resources in mid- to small-size communities tend to be tight, and as a local government you don’t always have the option to hire or set up a specialised engagement team. In that case, we advise you to gather colleagues from different departments and build a ‘core engagement team’. Think of it as forming a mini task force from within your existing teams. Besides their usual tasks, these colleagues will bring your engagement ambitions to life by helping other departments design projects and run consultations.”
Regardless of the approach, the responsibilities remain consistent. “At the core, it is composed of a strategic leader who is the face towards the rest of the organisation, at least one communications professional, and staff from the various departments that want to launch engagement projects, such as parks & recreation, mobility, and strategy, who will project-manage,” Hugo added.
Want to learn more about the responsibilities each team member should have? Download Part 2 of our guide “Building a Culture of Engagement: A Practical Handbook” for an overview and a ready-to-use template to redefine your team members’ responsibilities yourself!
What skills should they have?
There’s a handful of both hard and soft skills that can really make a difference in community engagement. Each skill has its own part to play and can boost how well your team does.
Hard skills your team should have
1. Community engagement basics
A basic understanding of community engagement and what it entails is key, but it’s just as important to have the curiosity to keep learning and improving. As Hugo put it, “Not only to be able to run effective projects but also to continuously promote the concept of engagement within your team and the wider organisation.
Part of this role involves guiding colleagues in their consultation design to ensure a certain quality level, but you don’t necessarily need to have all this knowledge from the get-go. If you don’t, we strongly advise partnering up with a company that can offer you support or training. At CitizenLab, our clients get support from their dedicated Government Success Manager, for instance. We believe that you don’t have to be an expert right off the bat and that a willingness to learn and grow will get you a long way.”
2. Communication skills
As the adage goes, communication is key to community engagement. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that your team should have at least one “master of the message”. Hugo drives this point home by adding that “It’s up to the communications professionals to breathe life into the projects with their communication prowess.
If you want to promote your projects well and convince community members to participate, you’ll need at least one person who’s good at crafting compelling narratives and who knows how to get their message across via various channels. But good communications don’t stop with promotion: updating while the project is open for participation, reporting back on the results, and explaining what you’ll do with the collected input are all as important for building trust.”
Moreover, don’t think of this as a skill set that is purely useful externally. Hugo adds, “Also internally you’ll need to communicate well about the progress and results of your projects. You need this to continue to build and maintain support for your engagement strategy.”
According to Hugo, there is a fascinating shift happening in government circles lately: “They are increasingly acknowledging the importance of engagement communication as a specialised task. In fact, many are creating specific roles titled ‘Community Engagement Communications’. These roles are a testament to the value they see in fostering a direct, meaningful dialogue with their communities. It’s not just about spreading information anymore; it’s about engaging in conversations, understanding needs, and ensuring those needs are reflected in government actions.”
3. Project management skills
It goes without saying that project management skills are a cornerstone of effective community engagement. “Being able to efficiently plan, execute, and oversee a project from beginning to end is incredibly valuable. This includes setting realistic goals, coordinating with various stakeholders, keeping track of timelines, and managing resources wisely. It’s about steering the ship and ensuring that everyone is working together towards the same end goal.
Whether it’s a small consultation or a larger engagement initiative, solid project management skills ensure that everything runs smoothly and objectives are met on time,” shared Hugo.
But what about these hard skills?
No Master’s in IT required
When it comes to the tech skills required for engagement, many people wonder if they need an IT specialist on their team. The answer is usually no. According to Hugo, “Most engagement platforms, including CitizenLab, are easy to set up and designed to be user-friendly. Our team develops our platform with input directly from public servants to ensure it is intuitive for those on the ground.”
In fact, Hugo generally advises engagement teams to maintain as much independence from the IT department as possible, stating“IT teams usually have a lot on their plate, and the last thing you want is for your engagement projects to be delayed due to more urgent technical issues that need their attention.”
No need for expert-level data analysts
When it comes to data analysis skills, the level required can vary depending on the complexity of the project. “For most projects, you don’t need to be an expert to make sense of your data,” Hugo says. However, one thing that’s at least equally as important is planning which data to collect.
“Before you even start a consultation, it’s crucial to think about what data you’ll need, what questions will garner that data, and how you can use that information. It’s this strategic, forward-thinking approach to data that really matters and will lead to better data-driven decisions.”
Soft skills you’ll need to drive meaningful connections
Besides the hard skills, a myriad of so-called soft skills and competencies come into play, shaping the community engagement team into an effective, impactful unit.
1. People skills
In community engagement, people skills shine through two key abilities: emotional intelligence and cultural competency. “Emotional intelligence is all about understanding and empathising with the end users. It’s the ability to step into their shoes and design projects that truly appeal to them.
Similarly, cultural competency plays a significant role. To engage effectively, you need to understand your audience – their background, their needs, their perspectives. It’s this understanding that will shape your approach, helping you create engagement strategies that resonate,” reflected Hugo.
It’s worth noting that these skills are closely intertwined with the ability to write meaningful, engaging content. “After all, to communicate effectively, you first need to understand who you’re communicating with,” he added.
2. Problem-solving skills
No matter how well you plan, projects rarely go exactly as you’d wish them to. That’s where problem-solving skills come into play for a community engagement team member.
Hugo shared that “Being able to adapt to unexpected changes and find creative solutions is key. This requires flexibility to alter your approach, proactivity to foresee potential roadblocks, and creativity to devise new strategies when needed. As different phases of a project unfold, these problem-solving skills ensure you can navigate any hurdles that come your way, keeping your engagement efforts on track and effective.”
Perseverance is an often-underrated skill, but it can be a game changer – especially in community engagement. The work isn’t always easy; it involves managing different personalities, navigating unforeseen challenges, and dealing with the pressure of influencing important policy decisions. It’s not uncommon to encounter setbacks, such as low participation or delays, but it’s the ability to keep pushing forward that really counts.
Perseverance allows a team to maintain its focus on the end goal, even when the path to get there isn’t straightforward. It’s about continuously striving to create meaningful connections, continue to improve engagement strategies, and relentlessly pursuing the ultimate goal of effective public participation. It’s this tenacity – this refusal to give up – that can often make the difference between a good engagement team and a great one. Perseverance, therefore, is not just a desirable skill—it’s a necessary one.
Building an impactful community engagement team is an intricate process that requires a delicate balance of diverse roles and skills. It’s not just about bringing enough people to the table, but also about bringing the right people to the table. And remember: community engagement is a dynamic, evolving process that, above all else, requires the will for continual learning, adaptation, and passion for truly connecting with the community and making a difference.
Learn more about the responsibilities each team member should have in Part 2 of our guide “Building a Culture of Engagement: A Practical Handbook”. Download a free copy and get a ready-to-use template to redefine your team members’ responsibilities yourself!