Digital community engagement case studies

The use of new technology is changing how we reach out to and engage with our communities. It is also changing the way in which communities are taking part in the planning system. This is accelerating due to the Covid pandemic. Contact [email protected] for more information. December 2020.


No one is an expert in ‘consultation during a pandemic’. But it is a good time to look at the opportunities new technology presents and how it can broaden the consultation to reach beyond the those that generally always participate (sometimes referred to as the ‘usual suspects’).  Hana Loftus, Engagement and Communications Lead at the Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service, has helped us to do this and produced some example case studies.

Recognising the need for change

The need for greater diversity in how we talk to our communities has been recognised. Public meetings often lead to individuals grandstanding, are attended only by the usual suspects and are dominated often by the loudest voices. It can be intimidating to those not used to or comfortable airing their views in public. It is impossible to find a time in the day, or the week, for a workshop that is accessible to everyone. Others are unable to attend events away from their home due to specific personal circumstances.

What a better approach might look like

At exhibitions in public halls people will take and share photos using their phone. Why not move that content online? Councils wishing to expand and enhance their their engagement are keen to promote online engagement.  The engagement platforms offered by a range of enterprises are seeing unprecedented take-up.

But we must be sure we aren’t replacing one unsatisfactory or narrow format with another. We need to be sure that in access. We need to be sure that in accessing a new audience we haven't excluded another e.g. those without digital access.

Design for accessibility & usability

The brilliance of digital is that it can reach those unable to attend events. We must, however, make sure we design the content so that it is accessible to those with specialised needs. A PDF is a terrible format for online viewing especially on a phone. It is difficult to read a document if you have to scroll around and zoom in and out. A web page is much better - accessible by screen reader, translatable, and searchable. A well-designed webpage is accessible and easy to read on a phone, tablet, desktop or laptop computer. A digital newspaper is not a PDF of the paper version.

Online content is watchable in bed, over breakfast, or on the way to work. You can pause it, share it and discuss it at a convenient time with friends and family. If you want to go into depth, you can take as much time as you want to read and respond.

Design for usability

Whether you are a tentative digital user, or a Gen-X digital native, the user journey matters. Users will abandon sites or content that is difficult to find or navigate. This leaves consultations to the 'keyboard warriors’ who persevere and dominate consultations.

We want well-written, well-read social media posts to result in meaningful feedback and dialogue. When users click through, do they encounter a barrier or encouragement to engage? Plan making regulations put many off as the user must leave personal details.

Design for clarity & data capture

Content that is too technical, verbose or unintelligible is worse than useless. It perpetuates negative perceptions. Instead of raising a communities capacity to take part, it creates damaging misunderstandings.

People typically read 25% of a webpage so we need to put more effort into simplifying the language we use. Marrying simple text with clear, well-designed graphics is another essential for online content. ( has brilliant resources on how to write for the web).

Design to capture data

Digital consultation offers the ability to gather and analyse more data. Good design is crucial. A badly designed survey is not improved by sticking it on a slick app or website.

Digital surveys allow you to use a range of methods. Yes/no questions, ranking preferences, or using Likert-typecales (e.g. ‘agree’ / ‘strongly agree) ’can generate easily analysed quantitative data alongside written comments.

It's important that survey questions are not ‘leading’ and allow genuinely open responses. A good principle is to ask: 'what data would make a difference to our plan-making process'? and structure questions around that. Vague questions result in vague answers. You want answers that you can use as evidence to support or reconsider your approach.

Evaluation and reach

Evaluating the success of your engagement activity is essential. Data captured must be consistent and easily analysed. Good data analysis and establishing useful findings requires skills and resource. This is essential to the integrity of the process and being able to create a body of robust research.

It is also important to measure the success of your outreach. This is particularly important when identifying return rates from communities with protected characteristics. A simple, voluntary demographic survey will show if your outreach improves over time.

Social media statistics and web analytics are powerful tools. They help you discover what people find interesting and who is responding. It pays to think upfront about how you will monitor this in real time. If people aren’t engaging with certain topics or you are failing to reach certain geographic areas or demographics, you can adjust your approach during the consultation.

Non-digital methods still matter

Good engagement means meeting people where they already are. We must make it as easy as possible for people to make time in their busy, challenging lives to engage with us. This might mean dropping in on toddler groups or lunch clubs. It might involve standing outside supermarkets or at train stations. It may mean a 'pop-up' in the marketplace or in an empty shop. We must be agile and flexible enough to meet the needs of our communities. We’re the ones paid for our time to do so after all.

The same goes for the online world. People gather on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, so we should be ‘meeting’ them there. Simple, free tools like SurveyMonkey and Google Maps are familiar to many people. Why do we expect people to visit (and learn how to use) a whole new platform/website to engage with us? Use virtual groups that already exist. There are community groups on Facebook already followed by hundreds in small community or geographical (hyperlocal) areas. This is this a more effective form of outreach and is far less costly.

The Covid pandemic has seen new cohorts of online users emerge. The elderly, for example, have become more connected than ever before. Grandparents are on Zoom or using Facebook to organise help. Neighbours are checking in with each other on WhatsApp. But let’s not get too optimistic. There are minority groups such as first-generation immigrants that are not online at all. Younger 'tech-savvy' family members can help excluded groups to connect.

Digital is not a replacement for physical engagement. There are things that happen in a physical space that are impossible to replicate online. Digital meetings and workshops can be effective for groups already working together. Developing trust or a personal connection among strangers can be difficult online.

Catherine Greig of make:good refers to ‘accidental people’. - those that have not ‘signed up’ in advance but take part by chance. Often it only takes a piece of cake or or a funny joke to encourage someone to take part. Physical events provide room for 'stealth' tactics to draw people into unfamiliar territory.

Engagement specialist Daisy Froud says: ‘people will say all sorts of things in a response to a survey. But transformative change happens when people are in a space together working'. Practitioners are translating some of this ‘bit of magic' into the online experience. Most recently this is being tried by evolving hybrid approaches. This mixes digital and physical engagement with the same groups of people.

How do you wish to take part?

Many practitioners are going back to basics by asking people how they want to take part. As Daisy Froud says, ‘none of us is an expert in consultation in a pandemic. We need to ask our communities how they would like to participate and what works for them.’

Older people are often more comfortable opening up during a long phone call on a landline. Others are happier receiving material in the post that they can read in advance of a call or video meeting. For others an email or text message exchange feels more personal and trusting than a video call. Pens and paper are still powerful engagement tools.

Small groups rather than large ones can be more effective. It is difficult to ‘read the room’ on a video platform. It takes time for relative strangers to form relationships and bonds with each other.

Case study: RBKC Kensal Rise Masterplan

Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) have developed a Spatial Planning Document (SPD) for a 4000-home site at Kensal Rise. They used a range of in-person and digital methods. Their experience highlights the benefits and the drawbacks of using different techniques.

Drop-ins in busy locations and pop-ups in supermarkets were very successful. Workshops advertised with 7,000 flyers attracted only a handful of attendees. To extend the ‘reach’ of the consultation, RBKC used the digital platform Built ID. BuiltID reduces the barriers to community engagement with a variety of consultation tools. The first survey RBKC launched used heavy social media advertising. It attracted 1,200 unique users. The council collected demographic data and feedback they would not otherwise have received.

The second round of consultation had a smaller budget for social media advertising. It attracted a much lower response. It is unclear if the novelty of the tool had worn off, or if the smaller advertising budget had an effect.

Those that responded through Built ID represented a different demographic to 'traditional' respondents. Most were under 35, more pro-development, and were ethnically, but not socio-economically diverse.

Face-to-face meetings were also on offer to community groups. This was a successful tactic and resulted in over 30 meetings across a range of groups. This included both established and new groups of 10-15 neighbours or friends. This was far less time consuming than the traditional exhibition format. A less formal, personal approach generated more trust and useful dialogue. The RBKC team had more time to explain key issues like density and affordable housing. The team at RBKC still have work to do if they are to reach some immigrant communities. Longer-term engagement will be key in building relationships across these communities.

One of the most positive experiences of working with Built ID was the training received. This included structuring survey questions to get meaningful responses and presenting accessible information. Tools like BuiltID also make it easier to coordinate consultation activity. This will be useful in addressing specific issues such as ‘consultation fatigue’.

Case study: Liverpool City Region Spatial Strategy

The Mayoral team for the Liverpool City Region (LCR) Spatial Development Strategy (SDS) has a clear focus. They want to reach people from the area who are ‘not yet engaged’. Young people are a specific target. They want a balance of established interest groups and those new to planning issues.

At the ‘options’ stage, the LCR team worked with specialist organisations. These organisations have experience of working with different parts of the community. They have successfully involved higher proportions of young and ethnic minority people.

LCR partnered with two existing organisations working with young people in the area. PLACED are a social enterprise that produces engagement activities across the North West. They have an academy for young people interested in built environment professions. They ran a specific summer school for 13-17-year-olds focused on the SDS. Of the 40 participants, 54% were female and 40% were from ethnic minorities. Alongside this, PLACED ran pop-up shops in areas of deprivation. Visual, playful and interactive tools (as opposed to conventional written surveys) encouraged engagement.

The LCR team commissioned Sefton Young Advisers (SFA). SFA are a group of trained young people aged 15-23 who act as paid consultants. They create and run bespoke engagement programmes across the area.

The team also worked with the Mayor’s Fairness and Social Justice Advisory Board. The Board has local people representing a cross-section of communities. They have networks that reach refugees, domestic abuse victims and other marginalised groups. They also use the authority’s older people’s task group as a focus group.

LCR used the digital platform Commonplace for their digital engagement activity. Commonplace created a consultation document for the six consultation themes. The aim was to create something concise, accessible, and in a mobile friendly format.

This gave the LCR team real time access to the response data. The team could keep tabs on the diversity of respondents. This allowed them to identify an under-representation of disabled people. As a result, the team set up a special forum to gain feedback from this group.

The Commonplace consultation achieved over 2000 responses. The consultation reached a more diverse range of people than normal. It also brought issues to the fore that would not otherwise have had such prominence. Climate change for example rated as the top priority for younger and older people. Housing rated as a key but secondary issue.

LCR chose to use engagement specialists to run their engagement. Mark Dickens, Lead Officer for Spatial Planning at LCR told us: ‘If you have a bad experience you won’t take part again. We talk ‘planner’ – they don’t’. The planning team were happy to step into the background. The specialists worked with other parts of the City Region and external organisations. This helped them to reach the ‘not yet engaged’ groups in a more efficient and effective way. Contact [email protected] for more information.

Case study: Grosvenor Square

Grosvenor’s engagement on Grosvenor Square started before the March 2020 lockdown. It had to transition to different methods as the pandemic set in. The aim was to undertake a ground-breaking piece of community engagement. They targeted local and London-wide audiences to influence the design of the development. They also want to foster long-term community stewardship of the Square.

The engagement focused on the themes of interest to the community. They encouraged the community to have a real influence over the design. Each theme used a range of methods:

- Big topic talks: online presentations and panel discussion from expert speakers;

- Local conversations: in-depth conversations with the design team. Getting an understanding of the existing Square and discussing specific ideas for change. These had to take place online. A short, printed resource pack supported each theme. The pack went by post to people in advance and to those who wanted to take part by phone only;

- Discovery packs: online local environment activity packs for children and young people. The packs encouraged exploration and the sharing of ideas for change and improvement;

These activities included one-to-one meetings with key stakeholders. Alongside this, regular print and digital communications helped build relationships with local groups.

Smaller groups worked best for online engagement seeking feedback. Using senior team members encouraged people to attend and speak at the sessions. They have made space for different lengths of conversations and tailor the material. For example, short and simple surveys via mobile phone and tablet. Local conversations in groups could be much more in-depth. Supporting activities with printed material made participants feel more valued. It followed that they they'd be more likely to commit to a session. The quick transition from face-to-face to online activity, demonstrated the team's agility. The team is now picking up learning from a variety of new ways of working.

Over an 8-week period in May-June 2020, the consultation reached 1,061 people aged 15-75+. They held 16 online events, online survey, digital tag-ons and individual phone calls. This generated over 3,000 pieces of feedback. The programme continued with an open-air exhibition in the Square. The second phase of the programme will take place in the lead up to the planning application. Contact [email protected] for more information.


Case study: Greater Cambs Local Plan – the First Conversation

The Greater Cambridge Shared Planning Service (SPS) is developing a joint Local Plan. It covers both the city of Cambridge and the district of South Cambridgeshire. The Issues and Options stage consultation took place in early 2020 (pre-Covid). The SPS used a range of new approaches to reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’.

A range of face to face and digital methods translated the consultation document. They created a digital, accessible, mobile-friendly and graphics-led website. Unlike conventional consultations, this allowed anonymous responses via ‘one click’. Formal representations by named respondents were also collected.

The consultation included an extensive social media campaign of paid and organic posts. Local Facebook groups and commissioned YouTube videos got hundreds of thousands of views. This translated to over 4,000 unique visitors to the website. Pop-ups at busy supermarkets, schools and train stations reached over 6,000 people. A ‘Big Debate’ was also organised including a range of community groups. Pecha kucha style events were held at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. These involved Children from the Cambridge Schools Eco Council and attracted a capacity audience.

These consultation events resulted in over 7,000 comments received. A (voluntary) survey completed online achieved a higher proportion of BAME respondents. It also achieved a better response from people with physical and mental health conditions.

The team used digital analytics to ‘drill down’ into the responses. This will help them see what content was found to be the most interesting. They'll use this knowledge to influence other major consultations going forward. Contact [email protected] for more information.

Case study: NHS (SW) London - Improving Healthcare Together

How resident opinion fed into proposed changes and improvements to local healthcare services. The improvements included a new state-of-the-art specialist emergency care hospital. The Improving Healthcare Together team held a consultation for three months. This would allow them to hear and consider the views of those living in the area and using the facilities.

The goal was to reach 250,000 people using various methods of communication. They used a website, social media, forums, public meetings, listening events and surveys. The campaign received 2,500 responses in total. Aware of the role of social media would play, they appointed marketing agency Spring to deliver the social media for the campaign. The social media campaign aimed to reach younger people and those that might not readily engage with the other campaign methods.

The campaign illustrated what targeted paid for social media advertising can achieve. The campaign reached 281,600 (well above the target). Of the 30,000+ people that visited the Improving Healthcare Together website, 65% came via social media. Contact [email protected] for more information.

In summary

The best engagement processes understand the fundamentals. Who do we want to involve and why? How do we help make people feel comfortable? What are the types of outputs we are seeking as a robust evidence base for decision-making? Experienced practitioners know that there is no ‘one size fits all’. Creating diverse ways that people can engage is the only way to be inclusive. The use of digital platforms is now the norm and they are extending our outreach. On their own, however, they can be just as exclusive as the more ‘traditional’ techniques. Contact [email protected] for more information.