Pitfalls

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People at all levels of seniority can be put off engagement their bad experiences in the past, or can feel daunted by the complexity of the task.

Community engagement is genuinely challenging – and if things have gone wrong, then it’s important to learn from the experience. It is not a field where there are easy solutions!

 

Common pitfalls – the issues where things can go wrong – include:

A lack of clarity about what can be influenced

Residents can feel let down if it is not clear what they can influence, and where decisions have already been taken.

Gap between rhetoric and practice

It’s important to be clear about the influence that residents have, what sort of engagement can take place, what the timescales are. Telling people that they are in control of a situation, when they actually aren’t, only causes resentment.

Expecting people to come to you

A minority of people will go to public meetings and traditional consultation events. Some people who are time poor may be more likely to engage online or at different times of the day; groups that may feel excluded from influence will engage more easily if the Council comes to them. Engaging people in the chip shop, the barber, the launderette or playcentre can be very successful.

Over-consultation

Especially in big, slow moving projects, residents often complain that they are consulted too many times without seeing change. Check that you aren’t consulting the same group of residents at different times, and reach out to th

Officer burn out

Dealing with residents’ feedback, frustration and even anger, is exhausting, stressful and can feel like a thankless task.

Poor feedback

Residents often complain that no one tells them what happens to their consultation responses. It is important to feed back, to tell people what decisions have been taken and why. People will accept decisions that they don’t agree with more readily if they are given good information.

Delays

These are inevitable, and more likely the bigger and more complex the project. It’s important to be as transparent as possible about why.

“Experts know best” syndrome

This is an easy trap to fall into. Remember that residents are also experts about their neighbourhoods.

Lack of buy in among partners

Partners need to sign up to engagement and consultation, and avoid giving out mixed messages.

Tensions between participatory and representative democracy

The voices of unelected groups that put time and effort into improving their local area can come into conflict with the views of elected representatives. The involvement of local people and third sector groups who are perceived to be ‘unaccountable’ can challenge the traditional leadership roles of elected members.

Failing to engage certain groups

Some groups – younger people, people without long roots in a neighbourhood, people who work long hours – are less likely to take part in engagement activities. It is important to know the neighbourhood, know who lives there and who is unlikely to take part in different activities from the outset.

Consulting the same people repeatedly

Some groups are likely to be more easy to engage – particularly older people with more free time, who have more personal resources and confidence. If care is not taken to reach beyond this group then the effect will be that the same peoples opinions will be reported in each engagement exercise.

Not testing assumptions

Everyone starts engagement processes with certain assumptions about what will happen, what different voices will say, what opinions are likely to be. It’s important to keep an open mind!

Inadequate resources

Budgets for engagement are very tight, so it’s important to match resources to plans, so that what is promised can be delivered.

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