Digitising planning – developing trust and engagement

John Twitchen, PCSG’s Head of Cities and Communities and Associate for the Consultation Institute, calls for planners to digitise planning and notes the benefits for all parties involved in the process.

Pretty much my whole career has been concerned with communicating infrastructure – that’s over twenty years, and almost every project I’ve been involved with has been complex or controversial – often both! And almost every project I’ve worked on has involved people – I mean real people, the public.

Over that time the Internet has found its feet, and social media was born. Over the same period, trust ratings in politicians and decision makers have nose-dived; true also for pollsters and journalists.

Indeed, Edelman’s annual trust barometer survey made for interesting if alarming reading. I’m sure 2018’s will be even more so. The Guardian reported on Edelman’s survey, noting “the number of people in the UK saying they trusted the media fell from 36% to 24%, while trust in businesses fell from 46% to 33% and charities from 50% to 32%.” It’s worth noting that long-term trackers had trust in ‘high end’ journalists in the high-60% range just twenty years ago.

At the end of last year, Ipsos-Mori and Mumsnet combined forces to delve into the 2016 annual Veracity Index, and “at the end of a year during which we were told (during the Brexit referendum campaign) the public had had enough of experts, 80% say they trust scientists. Economists, who are included in the index for the first time, come in the middle of the table, trusted by 48% – coincidentally exactly the proportion of the electorate that voted ‘Remain’.” Economists are trusted more than trade union officials (43%) and bankers (37%), but less than civil servants (56%) and the ordinary man or woman in the street (65%) and hairdressers (68%).

But why focus on trust in an article about digitising planning?

 The reason is that it is more important than ever to make sure information on major projects cuts through to Jo/e Public, information that individuals can make decisions about, and use to inform their views during planning. Jo/e Public is high up the trust curve, and this is critical to the communicators, to developers and decision makers. It’s no longer just a case of ticking a consult box. If ever it was.

The 2008 Planning Act codified consultation and engagement and made ‘good practice’ a requirement. But nothing more – it’s time to move on and adopt better forms of good practice; maybe even aspects of current best practice. Now is the time to seize upon digital information and digital technology, improve engagement and substantially improve outcomes.

Meanwhile, thanks to some brilliant work carried out by Copper, which I commissioned before I left, we know that people really do want to be involved in decisions and the planning process. Face-to-face talks are still a key element of any project. What better way to build trust than to talk to people and give the project a personality. However, we are missing huge swathes of people if we focus on traditional, tried and tested analogue methods.

We know from projects like the North London Heat and Power Project, a DCO, which I led communications on, that we can reach people through digital channels and social media with rich content; we can target people with that content, and we can ensure messages directly reach people. This ensures information reaches people that wouldn’t otherwise be reached by traditional methods, plus the content is much more engaging and interesting.

But we still struggle with genuine engagement, in particular, ‘hard to reach’ people, i.e., most of ‘em! How do we know what they are thinking, without resorting to polling?

Developers struggle to navigate through and around the ‘hard to avoid’ – there’s not a lot you can do to help other than listen; more to the point, some stakeholders don’t want to receive information that challenges how they feel about issues. But it must be remembered just how many dozens, hundreds, or even thousands on a big scheme, do want to find out more but often don’t know how to.

Developers and scheme promoters must try much, much harder to reach more people. And this is where digital can play (and is already beginning to play) an essential role.

But why talk to more people, I hear some of you say? You’re scared of what you might hear, aren’t you? You’re scared of more vitriol, more anger, more negativity.

In my experience and I know the same experience is shared by many others, the wider you reach the more interesting and informed the discussion becomes.

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