More and more local governments are engaging their communities in decision-making. Whether it’s to increase trust or create more inclusive policies, community engagement has become a central part of local government and we’ve found that digital engagement with CitizenLab leads to 12x more participation on average. To help local governments keep up, engagement teams are being formed in cities all across the country.
What is a community engagement team?
Engagement (or participation) teams help ensure local governments have a dedicated capacity to community engagement work, backed with expertise. They often play a central function between various stakeholders, building relationships with community members and local groups, internally advocating for widespread adoption of engagement principles across departments, and coordinating communication between community members and government leaders.
On top of managing so many internal and external stakeholder relationships, engagement teams are also usually charged with creating, managing, and implementing a city-wide plan for community engagement.
Given all that these teams manage, it should be no surprise that local governments with dedicated engagement teams have a competitive advantage compared to those who run their engagement projects ad-hoc.
The competitive advantage of engagement teams
First, what exactly is a competitive advantage? In the public sector, it’s usually measured by the skills and resources that improve how efficient and responsive (public) services are. As clarified in the previous section, the competitive advantage of having one committed engagement team can help:
- Play a neutral, mediating role between the diverse stakeholders needed to make engagement successful: local residents, stakeholder groups, elected officials, and others.
- Serve as goalkeeper to ensure information flows consistently between teams and departments, and between the local government and its community members.
- Contribute their expertise for a more strategic approach to community engagement, with the right participation methods and processes.
- Ensure a balance between different types of engagement projects, balancing lighthearted vs. more serious projects.
- Tap into their networks of community ambassadors in different fields (such as urban planning or social work).
- Be accountability partners to ensure everyone practices what is preached, including the participation vision and moving up the participation ladder where possible.
Because of the centralized role engagement teams often have, they can help ensure participation is continuous, highly-participatory, truly inclusive, and responsive.
But what if you don’t have the capacity or funding to put together an engagement team?
In Newham, one of the biggest and most diverse boroughs in London, community engagement is a continuous process thanks to the borough’s leadership prioritizing participatory democracy. With a dedicated Resident Engagement and Participation team, Newham has run large, successful engagement projects on everything from a £4.1 million urban planning project to large-scale community assemblies.
What you can do if you don’t have an engagement team
When you don’t have a committed engagement team, it can be hard to coordinate internally and fit engagement into your day-to-day responsibilities. However, it’s still possible to run (good) engagement initiatives by internally organizing across departments and planning carefully.
As much as possible, it’s important that teammates tasked with engagement can delegate some of their other tasks to give more attention to their community efforts. Here are some of our other tips for local governments that want to run engagement projects without a dedicated team:
- Formulate clear goals and deadlines from the start, and communicate them internally to ensure collaboration is set up for success.
- Plan proactively for some of the challenges that could emerge without a centralized team managing engagement.
- Coordinate responsibilities across different teams and departments.
- And on that note, consider creating a working group made up of individuals from different teams/departments to ensure good collaboration (these folks will also be your internal community engagement ambassadors).
- Plan a way to update other colleagues on your engagement initiatives, such as with an internal newsletter.
- Try to spot conflict early on and delegate between stakeholders so it doesn’t impact your timeline and process.
- Make sure that engagement is a continuous and meaningful process, so it doesn’t end up feeling like something to simply check off a list.
- Share learnings and insights from your engagement initiatives to inform the process for new participation methods/projects across different departments.
- Keep feedback loops open, both internally and with your community members.
The Municipality of Den Helder, in the Netherlands, didn’t have a dedicated community engagement team but they didn’t let that stop them. Instead, they set up a working group that meets every two weeks, and through this method they’ve found they “could switch quickly between departments and, at the same time, you create ambassadors everywhere who can propose projects and make the community engagement platform known among colleagues who do not participate in the working group,” says Steven de Groot, platform manager of Den Helder’s participation platform.
Getting started with (digital) community engagement
Wherever you are in your community engagement journey, the key is to start somewhere and digital resources can help you do that. Governments working with CitizenLab have seen a 55% decrease in the time they spend analyzing and reporting their engagement results – and instead, are able to spend the time saved on continuous engagement with their communities.