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Essex: working with partners and communities to develop your place brand

When the Essex Partners Group commissioned research into the challenges facing the county, it was clear no organisation could tackle them alone. But before working out the solutions, the group needed to decide on a story to unite behind everyone with a role to play. Will Bibby, Transformation and Innovation Lead at Essex County Council, explains how the Essex Partners group gathered insight from businesses, public sector partners, community leaders and the public to develop a place narrative that would help them to meet the region’s challenges head on. This case study forms part of our place branding toolkit.

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The challenge

At the end of 2016 the Essex Partner Group commissioned research into the top 20 issues facing Essex over the next 10-15 years. The types of issues were huge and will likely be familiar to many areas: things like demographic changes, changing nature of work, different and new types of crime, climate change and the impact of new technologies. We were all agreed that we needed to work together to address them as a system, as each of them affected us all but no one organisation had the power to tackle them alone. We needed to look at each issue as part of a wider ambition to strengthen Essex as a place and to do that, we needed to agree what our ambition for the area was, and how we wanted to be seen both locally, domestically and internationally. We also knew that do this we needed to involve as many partners, residents and stakeholders as possible to make sure any place narrative we developed resonated with the people whose help we would need to achieve it.

The solution

We started by launching a four-month period of engagement with a range of stakeholders to capture as many different views as possible. This was all about developing the themes and the content of the vision. We needed to make sure we collected as much insight as possible so we developed a detailed, integrated programme that involved everyone from residents, businesses and our public sector partners.

We hosted two large summits for key business and public sector partners on two of the biggest issues facing the region (the future of aging and the future of the economy). We ran a pulse survey with 500 staff from partner organisations to ask what they thought of Essex made Essex great and what held us back and we held more than 30 face-to-face and telephone interviews with a more targeted group of senior partners to understand their thoughts about the region in more detail, and get to grips with their concerns and ambitions.

We wanted to make sure that we widened our engagement as much as possible and found simple ways to involve people beyond formal consultation approaches. We created a microsite and accompanying social media campaign to encourage people to get involved from the comfort of their own homes. We asked people for their thoughts on what made Essex great and what they would do to the area if they were given £1million, and also to describe Essex in one word. We ran the campaign before Christmas and in the spring and used incentives such as shopping vouchers and free festival tickets to encourage people to get involved.

We also created a range of ‘cultural probes’ that we sent to schools and community groups to help them run their own workshops. We included self-addressed envelopes so that people could send their results back to us, reducing the amount of work people would have to do to get involved. We used fun activities like asking people to draw a flag to represent Essex or map their journey to work using string. We also encouraged people to write their own mottos or send us the one word that they thought summarised Essex so that we could get a better understanding of the language that resonated with residents before we started writing our own place narrative.

The impact

We achieved some excellent results from our engagement work. We received more than 1,000 responses from members of the public, more than 100 partners attended our summit events and over 30 public and voluntary sector leaders took part in our more detailed interviews. Importantly, using the cultural probes also helped us to unpack some really big issues in simple, visual ways. For example, some of the flags we received used imagery such as bloody knives, which really highlighted the extent to which public safety was concerning some residents. We received pieces of string that had been knotted in the middle to show people’s frustrations with completing their journeys to work when they reached the centre of the region. We also found that lots of Essex stereotypes weighed heavily on residents minds with words like dumb, blonde, bimbo, chav and, of course, TOWIE cropping up. We were able to use all of this insight to help us identify the 12 biggest areas that we as the Essex Partners Group would take forward and made sure that when we started to think about the language we wanted to use for our vision, we used language that was aspirational and challenged the negative stereotypes some people had about the area.

Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it

After collating all the information we had gathered we held the first Essex Assembly – an open meeting for any partner in the Essex system – to develop an insight-led place narrative and agree the key themes of the vision.

We took those themes and held partner workshops to develop and refine them into one of seven vision ambitions. The language we used throughout the vision was really important as we wanted it to reflect the insight gained from the engagement and make the vision a little bit different from what one might expect to come from local government.

We launched the vision at the second Essex Assembly in September 2017, where over 100 partners attended and enthusiastically contributed ideas for how we make the vision a reality and made individual pledges saying what they will do.

Lessons learned

While it can at times be difficult and a lot of work, taking the time and effort to really genuinely develop a place vision with partners and getting insight from the public were key to successfully developing a vision for Essex that has wide support and energy behind. We would not have secured nearly as many responses from as wide a cross section of stakeholders as we did if we had relied on traditional, formal methods of consultation. Thinking creatively and using a range of integrated activities helped us to reach a wider mix of people, which gave us confidence that our vision would resonate with partners and communities.

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Will Bibby, Transformation and Innovation Lead at Essex County Council.