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Why numbers are important in community engagement

We often hear architects and planners say 'it isn't about the numbers, it's about the quality of response' when talking about the turnout for a public consultation on their plans. There is some important truth in what they're saying, but numbers are important too, and here's why.

The beauty of speaking, particularly face-to-face, with a person affected by a potential plan or development proposal is that you can hear things that are impossible to pick up in a technical survey (like traffic counts or ecological assessment, for example) and really difficult to articulate in a feedback questionnaire. In-person conversations can really get to the heart of the matter and reveal things that architects, planners and urban designers simply can't understand about a place when looking in from the outside.

That's why face-to-face conversations should always form part of the equation and contribute to the evidence base used to inform and justify change. However, just because one person says something enchanting and interesting at a public event, doesn't mean that it is representative of what everyone else thinks. That's not to say that they're being deceptive, but basing any analysis on the view of one or a handful of people risks not representing the community as a whole, particularly when face-to-face events tend (in our experience) to attract a narrow demographic segment of the population who have very particular aspirations and concerns.

Those anecdotal insights can form part of the story-telling when reporting on the outcomes of community engagement, but they need to be paired with hard data and statistics that capture the aspirations of the wider population in order for the evidence to be robust. The process needs to be democratic in order to be a success, and simply basing decisions on the voice of the handful of people that find the time to come to a workshop or drop-in event risks reducing wider community trust in the decision-making process and skewing the outcome towards the aspirations of a minority.

The scale of community involvement therefore matters, because it makes your evidence base more robust, defensible, representative and useful. Here are five ways that you can scale your community engagement and make it more representative:

Create an accessible digital platform for the community to get involved

94.8% of the UK population is an active internet user, according to the Office for National Statistics. However, 94.8% of the local population won't be able to make it to your drop-in event. It's therefore vital that you create an easy-to-access, easy-to-use and mobile-friendly digital hub for people to absorb information and get involved.

Please LESS emphasis on social media

Like drop-in events, participation via established social media channels is naturally selective and attracts disproportionate activity from those most 'active' in matters relating to that organisation (like a local council). If social media is part of the plan, it is best to use promoted content, which finds its way in the feed of everyone, not just those that engage with the council's Facebook page, for example.

Find active community groups of time pressed people

A traditionally under-represented group is parents - they have very little spare time and their focus is usually on the immediate (feeding their kinds, getting them to sleep) rather than the distant (i.e. proposals for a site nearby), unless it directly impacts or benefits them (like plans for a school, for example). Going into schools or parent and toddler groups is a really good way to capture their insights without asking them to give up their precious time.

Use large printed media to draw attention

Often, the people most affected by plans for a development site are those that pass by or through every day, but they're often missed by other communication channels because they're probably on their way to work and therefore busy. Catching their attention with a poster or banner on-site is therefore a good way to get them involved, giving them a QR code or an easy to remember URL to get to your digital platform.

Send clear information by post

It's simple and traditional, but post naturally reaches everyone because you can target every residential address in a community. Keep the information bold and simple, with introductory text and a link to your digital platform. An A5 postcard is often a good way to do this, because people can see what it relates to straight away rather than assuming that it is junk mail.