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Dr David Janner-Klausner, Co-founder and Deputy CEO, Commonplace

As citizens and residents, we are occasionally asked for our opinion on local issues and developments. The Community Consultation for Quality of Life (CCQOL) project’s key objective is to understand how such local public engagement can be made more widely accessible to the entire diverse range of community members. 

My perspective is that of Co-founder of Commonplace, a partner company in CCQOL that provides the engagement websites for the project. These websites have been functioning alongside the fantastic in-person activities of the urban rooms in Reading, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. We have been supplying public engagement websites – over 2,000 of them – for almost a decade and I’d like to share our experience about propagating greater engagement in local decision-making. 

Our starting point is a simple proposition: that wide engagement leads to better decisions. Understanding different desires and aspirations in a community facilitates interactions that can make designs and policies function better for more people. In the longer term (and if handled well) wide engagement can help build trust in communal processes.

Building trust

This trust depends on authorities encouraging engagement and welcoming participation – but that alone is not sufficient. They also need to demonstrate that people have been heard – creating feedback loops that show the public how their contributions have been taken into account or, if they have not, openly explain why other priorities have prevailed. The essence of local democracy is reconciling competing needs to achieve good outcomes for communities. Being open and communicative about the decision-making processes is an obvious way to build trust. 

Building this continuous feedback loop with the public is tricky but vital. How vital? Well, in our own surveys of Commonplace respondents, we are repeatedly told that this is a key change that residents want to see. Correspondingly, we often hear the refrain, “they don’t listen”. The trouble is that even if “they” do listen, the authorities don’t show it effectively and continuously. 

Transitioning to continuous engagement

Technically, it is not difficult to “close the loop”. Respondents provide email and street addresses – the basics for remaining in contact. Executing this simple proposition requires a significant transition. We expect and hope to help authorities make the transition from episodic consultation to more continuous engagement patterns. This is what residents expect – and what we are conditioned to expect in the age of digital communication. 

Almost any commercial organisation, utility or service provider maintains regular communication with us – showing new products; providing tips on better use of energy or water; telling us regularly where our package is and when to expect it. 

And yet, on crucial community matters there are lengthy periods of silence. This is not only damaging to trust; it feels out-of-step with what we have now grown to expect  and I have heard the lack of feedback referred to as “disrespectful”. Residents have spent time responding to questions and are then not communicated with in return.

The difficulty is that episodic work patterns are deeply engrained in many local processes and “priced in” as such. Developers will consult the public when they have to – and often go silent once they have attained planning permission for their projects. In the short-term at least, their mission has been accomplished and the agencies they employ move on to new projects. Local authorities sometimes act in the same way as there is no clear hub for maintaining contact on individual projects. They may be lacking resources, have other communication priorities or project staff are simply reassigned. 

Closing the loop

At Commonplace, we have been building a hub for continuous engagement into our websites, trying to make it as easy as possible for the organisations using Commonplace to “close the loop” and maintain continuous engagement. We are thrilled at the way CCQOL projects have been using these features and the commitment shown to provide feedback to local people. Newsletters have been sent out; updates have been shared and social media campaigning has been used to drive traffic to the urban rooms and to the accompanying websites. 

Between them the four CCQoL projects have used the Commonplace blogging and distribution feature to send out 40 news items. News items were sent before the urban rooms were open, during their operation, and after they closed. As reports are being published on the findings from CCQOL work, they are posted on Commonplace websites and notification is sent to subscribers – again, closing the loop. (see the first example on the Reading website).

In Cardiff, the organisers of the urban room are going further still, arranging meetings with the City Council and also pop-up events in Grangetown to share findings and solicit more ideas for local change. There is a growing sense of creating a new dynamic that demands a longer-term commitment to feedback loops between residents and authorities.

For us at Commonplace, it is tremendously exciting and rewarding to see universities – as key locally-rooted institutions and influencers – pick up the mantle of continuous engagement and take from academic research to social action.