Viewpoint: Achieving a nuanced discussion is key to public engagement

Finding a way to engage local communities in a debate that allows for both nuance and transparency is key to getting people to engage with complex local issues and decisions, writes David Janner-Klausner.

Last month’s Queen’s Speech included one line on Housing – which can be summed up in one word: “more”. The explanation notes tell a bit more:

“We have not built enough homes in this country for generations. In order to fix the dysfunctional housing market, we need to build more of the right homes, in the right places, and ensure the housing market works for all parts of our community.” (1)

Building more homes means confronting and balancing interests, not least those of existing neighbours in the “right places” identified by government, planners and developers.

How do we make new housing developments more acceptable? Despite the distress caused by inadequate housing supply, proposals to add housing are often met with resistance and their progress slow and their acceptance fraught with difficulty.

Making development acceptable is fundamental to unblocking the housing pipeline. But making development acceptable has another critical consequence – funding local services. With local authority budgets severely constrained, improving local services depends greatly on benefits of local development. In this sense, a “NIMBY” approach, often anchored in the pressure on local services, is not just obstructive, it is also ironic: the development being resisted is actually the very key to alleviating the pressure on services. Quite simply, without a pipeline of new development, most local authorities do not have money to improve local infrastructures at the pace that is expected by residents – existing and potentially incoming.

It is clear that council leaders have to find ways of sharing the challenges they face with the public in a constructive way that builds trust. This is a tough challenge for communication and for leadership. It requires councils to convey the severity of choices as well as the opportunities that development brings – even in the face of a development being locally unpopular. It also demands nuance in an era where communication is moving more and more to the immediately functional.

We face a contradiction of dramatic impact: at the very time when we need citizens to be more engaged and more willing to wrestle with ambiguities and complex choices, the thrust of electronic communication is driving in the opposite direction. Click-bait, tweets and the online petition are the opposite of nuance. App-based transactions do their best to strip out any distraction that is not deemed functional (though leaving room for targeted advertising). Social media helps people to connect on an unprecedented scale but as the talkback chain lengthens, facts are distorted and then lost. We need a franchise that goes both wider and deeper.

The challenge is simple to articulate, but difficult to address: can we create online experiences that help people engage with complex local issues? Can we use the reach of social media to engage new audiences, without becoming embroiled in conspiracy theory and fake news? Can we design user experiences that delight as the best apps do to connect people to local issues and help build trust in the local development processes? In a contradictory way, can we use tools that speed up and condense communication to slow people down and help introduce nuance?

Our experience at Commonplace is that this can be done. We build web platforms that let people use the internet to respond to local issues – planning, new development, public realm and more – through a web app. Our databases and survey tools also support face-to-face interactions, which remain a critical part of local communication and leadership presence. We believe that trust is fostered through a high level of transparency: our websites are open for all to access, and all visitors can see all comments that have been made – the bad and the good (these are presented anonymously). This is radical transparency – but it is also transparency that can present fact and nuance.

Our evidence is that this approach works in several important ways:

  • It widens the franchise far beyond the typical participation in traditional engagement formats – in a recent engagement in London where there was an excellent traditional programme – pop-ups, exhibitions, and public meetings – about 800 people passed through exhibitions and meetings versus 4000 entering web sites, where they left over 5500 contributions.
  • It enables the traditional, face-to-face activities to be targeted where they are needed – to groups and locations that are under-represented.
  • It facilitates extraction of nuanced data, that can then be communicated back to the public and which supports decision-making.
  • The high level of transparency seems to create trust: a high proportion of users ask to be contacted with news and updates, for example.

Working with the grain of web apps means benefitting from their focus and ease of use. Exploiting the reach provided by the internet and by social media engages wider audiences. For new developments, this can mean the voices of those who need new homes alongside the voices of those who are instinctively reluctant to see new homes being built on their doorstep. Given the complex communication challenges that councils face, using digital platforms better should be an area under constant review and development.

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References:

[1]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/620838/Queens_speech_2017_background_notes.pdf – accessed online 27 June 2017

David Janner-Klausner is Co-founder and Business Development Director at Commonplace Digital Ltd