The South Australian government is taking the lead with its citizen engagement program ‘Your SAy’ – a multi-channel, online platform that engages citizens in key decision-making.
The government’s “Your SAy” web site is enabling communities to participate in making policy across a broad range of areas including healthcare, education, recreational services, affordable housing, and green development projects. The foundations for the Your SAy project were laid during one of Australia’s largest community consultation programs, when the SA government sought citizen feedback on its Strategic Plan.
This state development blueprint is refreshed every four years, and came up for review in 2010 – offering a chance to engage communities in new and innovative ways.
Now the South Australian Government is using the online tools, techniques and an online community of over 12,000 people to enable citizens to share ideas with each other and government on issues important to the state.
Since its launch two years ago, this online and social media project has helped planners gain a deeper understanding of the needs and aspirations of citizens from different cultures, age groups, and socio-economic backgrounds.
South Australia’s state-wide consultation began as a way to galvanise community feedback towards the state’s Strategic Plan, according to Gail Fairlamb, Principal, Community Engagement and Stakeholder Relations, Cabinet Office, Department of Premier and Cabinet (SA).
Gail Fairlamb joined the Cabinet Office in 2010 to help reach out to communities; more specifically through social media and other on-line engagement communication channels.
Initially this outreach effort targeted 10,000 people. Discussions were led by a Community Engagement Board. “This was the largest community consultation project ever held in the state,” recalls Gail.
The first round of consultations elicited feedback from over 9,200 citizens – offering a consolidated picture of what citizens wanted and needed from planners and service delivery agencies. Social media played a pivotal role in this outreach program.
Connecting people with policy
“During the update of the Plan, our aim was to connect people to policy using the most interactive and far-reaching communications channels,” says Gail. “Social media and online engagement offered us the best tools, while complementing face-to-face and other more traditional communications.”
As a first step, the project team carried out audience analysis to fully understand who they wanted to engage and why. “We drew on extensive community databases to gain a clearer picture of our target audience.
“To encourage people to engage we had to show everyone how the Plan was relevant to them – this way we hoped to encourage people to join the conversation to talk about what was important to them and their future.”
Because the online engagement area is still evolving, the team came to the project with somewhat limited experience. “There was a short timeline with moving into the project. We had set ourselves a very big target. It was quite a challenge for us.”
There were other challenges; this consultation had to be open and transparent, while using the best-available technology. “We needed a detailed social media policy, while creating an environment of trust and sorting out back-end ICT integration.”
Gail says: “We get some nice comments and some critical. During the Plan update, it was important for us to enable as many people as possible to participate. We wanted people to be able to see their comments go live online. Moderating posts had some risks but we managed these by careful monitoring and keeping the space social and upbeat. We still use moderate posts across all of our online forums.”
The team wanted to reach large numbers of people: social media and on-line communications offered the most interactive, cost effective and timely channels. “This was a new, cutting-edge approach for government-community engagement.”
The government’s initial Plan consultation took six months. The first step was to build an online community. This involved creating a database of 10,000 contacts that could be reached through social media and other channels.
Among its outreach activities, the project team engaged popular community figures – through radio talk-back, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “We had champions for a range of different areas – for example, health, multicultural affairs and the environment, all well-known people that others could easily relate to.
“We posted videos of these champions on YouTube and then promoted these conversations through social media. The key to engaging people using social media is to make it a social experience – people engage people.“
Engaging young people
During the Plan update, the team reached out to specific age groups, especially young people. These included canvassing them about their educational preferences, and interest in science subjects - as increasing the study of science is a priority for the Plan.
“For example, we hosted an online conversation between the Minister for Education and over 200 students. The students were able to comment anonymously. We received over 600 comments in just over an hour. The minister got valuable feedback that he would not have had otherwise. We got a lot of detail about what young people were thinking,” recalls Gail.
“One of interesting things about that conversation is that it continued on Facebook after our blog conversation closed.”
The 2010 Plan engagement effort took an integrated approach, bringing face-to-face consultations together with on-line communications. “We continue to use Twitter and Facebook as outreach tools to promote consultations as well as spaces for conversation.”
During a ‘Speak-out’ campaign for the 2010 Plan update, the team collated comments from face-to-face consultations and posted these on their web site with a supporting blog. They then emailed people that attended the consultation and asked them to check that what was heard was correct.
Understanding what motivates people
‘We learnt a huge amount in that experience, especially about how to reach out to specific audiences. Reaching new audiences involves more than just segmenting the audience according to a demographic group. We needed to know things like: what are peoples’ values? What motivates them to participate?
“People engage for different reasons and it’s important to match the content, tone of voice and channels to communicate with people online. So people engaging for professional reasons on say LinkedIn would require a different approach to those you hope to engage through a more casual media like Facebook.”
South Australia’s community engagement program, Your SAy, now enables citizens to have their say across wide-ranging topics and activities.
“Our current consultations include getting community ideas on redeveloping South Australia’s historic Port Adelaide, government housing strategies for people at risk, green development, emergency management, and community projects.”
After registering at the dedicated web site, citizens offer feedback and share ideas about community development, housing, safety and justice, public places and spaces, the environment, health, and education.
“We are now working to share our knowledge with other government agencies in South Australia,” says Gail. “We have a database of over 12,000 people who are actively interested in being involved in influencing the future of our state. “We offer an in-house online capability which includes our web-site and our database, social media tools and other expertise.”
Refining community engagement skills set
To succeed at the level demonstrated in South Australia, project teams need specific skill sets. “Staff need a good service delivery ethic and good project management skills are helpful. A good understanding of what you want to achieve and what the community can influence through the engagement - analytical skills - are important too.
“Staff need to know what works in a particular context and why. It’s also important to be responsive to people. To engage people you need good people skills: liaison, communication and engagement skills.” Gail says social media is a new area for government. “There are a range of challenges, largely because a lot of the work to be done involves exploring the unknown.”
Making government information accessible and interesting to communities is one of the challenges. “We’re now working with relevant agencies to make our government’s engagement activities relevant, timely, and open to fresh ideas. We continue to work on new things, while drawing on lessons from the past two years.”
The team is continually inspired and challenged by new projects. “For example, we recently hosted an online discussion between the Premier and the staff of Department of Premier and Cabinet. If you like change this is a good area to work in.”