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The need for community engagement in the provision of public services is at a peak.Legislation demands it, stakeholders insist on it and citizen journalism drives it. Waste management often sits at the heart of the debate.

Consultation on emotive subjects such as waste is difficult and can be combative. Getting it wrong can at best lead to significant delays to a scheme and, at worst, such schemes collapsing.

What is needed is meaningful engagement rather than passive consultation. If public bodies and commercial developers can engage in a meaningful way with their communities and discover what their concerns really are, then resources can be more effectively targeted.

The first step in a successful engagement programme is to listen. The sheer volume of noise created by tweeting, blogging, posting and videoing can often drown out people’s real opinions. The key to understanding is the ability to combine information from a variety of sources, and to use those findings to address issues of importance.

Lord Toby Harris, formerly of Haringey Council, says: “When I was council leader, keeping my finger on the pulse of public opinion was a difficult and arduous task. With current Freedom of Information requirements, a method of trawling all internal information would be helpful. Even better would be trawling outside sources to see if the research findings are still valid six, 12 or 18 months on.”

There are now technologies emerging, including the Symfonix platform, where tweets, emails, comments and other digital media information can be combined with an organisation’s existing data such as meeting minutes, letters, and research reports, and then plotted on a map. Such systems can even analyse the sentiment, location and volume of debate on any given issue. 

But understanding what is important remains a challenge. To know that thousands of people have tweeted about an issue is not particularly helpful - content and sentiment are critical.  

By casting a net wide to include, for example, blogs, pressure group websites, local media and online communities, a more complete picture will emerge. Understand-ing opinion can be the difference between backing or backlash.

Real insight is achieved only when knowledge is gleaned from various information sets, by understanding the strengths and limitations of those sources and then combining knowledge pools.

It is vital for both the private and public sectors to engage when introducing waste management schemes, tune out background noise and focus on those conversations that really matter. Time and tools are factors, but the cost of not engaging will be far higher.

Five tips for successful engagement

  1. Find out what issues are already being discussed by your community.
  2. Mine what information you have already have in the way of emails, minutes, letters and research reports. Put this into context by comparing it with what is being said online in digital and social media.
  3. Do not throw away the bits you do not use from your research projects - you can spend a lot of money commissioning research, so do not just file the information and forget it.
  4. Qualitative research is more insightful than quantitative. Where possible, ask open questions rather than tick box selections.  
  5. Ensure you have the capability to analyse results by topic, sentiment and location to release the hidden messages.

Edward Moore, chief executive of engagement and intelligence firm Symfonix

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