How Kanda balances face-to-face with virtual tools, by Adam McLaren, Associate Director

Adam Mclaren Associate Director

At the start of 2022, we’ve revisited our thinking about how we approach community engagement when it’s not possible to meet face-to-face. With restrictions having emerged and receded once again, we’re reminded of the need to ensure that consultation remains flexible and accommodating of different needs. Here at Kanda, our response to these changing circumstances will be guided by our experience of establishing innovative engagement tools over the last few years.

Initial changes in response to the Pandemic

If we cast our minds back to the beginning of 2020, the consultation landscape was very different. Kanda had always provided a digital offer, but usually as a supplement to engagement programmes that were centred around face-to-face events such as public exhibitions, doorknocking sessions and workshops.

The onset of the pandemic, along with the associated restrictions around social contact, compelled us to change all of that. We had to adapt every single one of our consultation programmes to keep people safe by avoiding any face-to-face contact. As Councils moved ahead with planning applications, we also needed to make sure that community conversations could continue – but in a different way.

‘At a distance’ engagement

We worked closely with our clients to move quickly to an ‘at a distance’ engagement approach using postal, phone and online tools to encourage people to continue to take part in consultation. This was the result of a huge amount of work from our multidisciplinary team:

  • Kanda Consult ensured that our campaigns were meeting and exceeding the rapidly changing expectations of clients, local authorities and communities
  • Kanda Digital worked to move our projects onto dedicated websites with interactive feedback materials, whilst advising on social media campaigns to engage new audiences
  • Kanda Create produced new materials specifically designed to be engaging and accessible in a virtual format

Innovation and impacts

Everything changed quickly and it was exciting to see so much innovation across all of our projects. Once we started to see the results it became clear that, rather than being a temporary solution, these changes would have profound and permanent implications for our approach to engagement.

It was encouraging to see from the outset that our campaigns were reaching new audiences. People were getting involved who hadn’t previously taken an interest in the built environment but were happy to engage using convenient and accessible online tools that they could recognise from other areas of their life.

We were excited that these campaigns were reaching people from a wide range of different backgrounds. With increasingly sophisticated data, we could now look in detail at who was engaging and how they were responding to our different tools. This in turn enabled us to refine our campaigns so that they could be ever more responsive to people’s preferences.

Re-introducing in-person events

As restrictions eased throughout 2021, we were able to gradually re-introduce in-person events and have those invaluable in-person discussions. With quick conversations held outside, street pop-ups proved a particularly effective and safe option early on. As the year continued, we were able to also offer drop-in events where people were able to engage in more detail in a COVID-safe environment.

Although it was great to get back to speaking to people face-to-face, these events now had a very different emphasis. Previously, they were the focal point of the consultation. Now, they were one of several ways to engage and were valuable as an opportunity to signpost the virtual surveys that would remain as a permanent feedback tool.

The return of these in-person opportunities made clear that engagement has permanently changed. Rather than returning to a previous normality, the innovations of the last two years have brought about a ‘new normal’ with different expectations of consultation. We’re now expected to show a strong digital presence, but also demonstrate how complementary postal and phone tools can overcome challenges around online exclusion.

In-person engagement will always be valuable, but it now sits alongside a suite of virtual tools that make consultation more dynamic and accessible than ever before. While we’re always keen to explore opportunities for face-to-face engagement where possible, these virtual tools that will stay in place whatever the circumstances.

A new normal

Whilst it’s positive to see restrictions receding, there will remain challenges around meeting face-to -face. At Kanda, we can proceed with confidence because of the proven success of our varied engagement tools.

Any future restrictions would not disrupt our campaigns. As part of a ‘new normal’ we now have the flexibility to consult virtually whilst rapidly adding or removing in-person events subject to circumstances.

What is certain is that the landscape won’t remain static and that expectations around consultation will continue to change. That’s why we’re constantly challenging ourselves to come up with new ways of engaging with communities and bringing more people into the conversation.

We’ve got exciting plans for new forms of engagement in 2022, and we look forward to working on these with clients, colleagues and communities.

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