In recent months Megan Streb, one of our Partnerships Managers, has supported local authorities to make changes to their road space in schemes funded through the government’s Emergency Active Travel Fund. Her work has focussed specifically on stakeholder engagement. Here Megan reflects on her experience, and what lessons we can all take away, as local authorities are encouraged to do more engagement on the next schemes that come forward.
Listening to a wide range of stakeholders is essential to effective changes to road space.
It’s been a really exciting time for local authority transport teams, albeit a hectic one.
When the government announced its Emergency Active Travel Fund in May, councils across the country were told to implement changes immediately to make it easier for people to walk, cycle and socially distance.
This meant that the normal consultation processes local authorities go through for road change schemes just weren’t possible.
But engagement has still been key, particularly in understanding people’s responses to temporary schemes and in thinking about what may work more permanently.
Two local authorities brought me into work with them during this time. My work has focussed on helping speed up their activities while maintaining good levels of engagement.
Here’s what I’ve learnt through the process.
1. Local authorities are process-driven and this needs embracing
Local authorities are large organisations, so need processes, systems and ways of working that enable consistency and efficiency across their work.
However, the introduction of the Emergency Active Travel Fund meant that all of a sudden, local authorities had to do things differently.
This was difficult for some because the systems and processes they had in place weren’t built with a rapid rollout or social distancing in mind.
As things started moving quickly, there was potential for things to get lost along the way.
Flexibility was key for that first stage.
I led initial conversations with representatives from key stakeholders on general issues and principles before any of the schemes were designed, making sure those were shared across the team.
We developed new ways to ensure people were listened to throughout, and their thoughts recorded, particularly once temporary schemes were live and people could see what they were like.
We asked people to give a range of feedback – including suggestions for small tweaks – as well as their reasons for supporting or objecting.
Local authorities embraced new digital tools to collect wider feedback from the public, long before scheme designs were shared.
Now that the next stage of the Active Travel Fund is upon us, there are opportunities to embed this new way of doing things.
Now is the time to look at and amend organisations’ systems and processes, to better integrate stakeholder engagement of this kind into project management frameworks and people’s ways of working.
2. Communications and stakeholder engagement happens at the off, so must be factored in straightaway
It became clear how important it is to ensure that everyone working on a project is fully aware of key messages from the very beginning of a project.
As conversations with local councillors or businesses happened very early, some happened before key messages had been agreed.
This is why it’s essential to think about communication from the very beginning of a project – when it’s just the seed of an idea.
Key messages need agreeing early on, and buy-in achieved amongst the project team.
This ensures consistency in every conversation, avoids mixed-messages, and makes certain that officers feel supported to have those conversations.
It can also help teams to have confidence that they’re not over-promising at the start of the project, and feel able to have the early conversations that highlight key issues and concerns before a project is designed.
3. There is a role for personal stories alongside the data
I noticed a reticence among some teams to share people’s personal stories.
Sometimes this was because councillors had only ever asked for stats in their briefings in the past. Or because officers didn’t want to expose individuals personally to any backlash around the scheme.
Stories show what people are experiencing, whether it’s highlighting issues before implementation, identifying why improvements are necessary or showing the impact of a scheme.
In addition, sharing individuals’ anonymised feedback shows that you’re listening. The feedback can be shared with stakeholders so they see the range of opinions you’ve heard.
Data and statistics are essential, but stories can bring out nuance and better reflect individuals’ opinions and experience.
4. Stakeholder engagement must go beyond the usual suspects
Teams working on active travel schemes are likely to have a standard stakeholder list – the local cycling group, the local accessibility group, councillors, bus operators, etc.
But many of the Emergency Active Travel Fund schemes were likely to impact a much wider group of people:
- people carrying shopping
- people pushing a double buggy and trying to keep up with a five-year-old on a scooter
- people who only cycle loops in a park because it doesn’t feel safe on the road
- people who don’t qualify for a Blue Badge but need a place to rest if they are walking too far
- and many more!
It’s important when planning stakeholder engagement that we think beyond the usual suspects.
It’s vital to check in on and update the existing stakeholder list to make sure that it covers everyone who will be impacted has been thought of.
We must cast the engagement wide, whether we’re carrying out interviews, assembling focus groups, or using a tool like Commonplace.
Listening to a wide range of views is essential as we develop the next round of projects.
It’s essential to do a lot of listening, embrace diversity, and ask people what it’s like to be in their shoes.
5. Not everyone in the team is starting from the same place in terms of stakeholder engagement
For some members of a project team, this sort of engagement may be new.
It may not be something that they’ve needed to do on projects they’ve worked on in the past.
So there is a need to share best practice within the team, and to offer training and support.
It’s essential to give officers support at the start of a scheme to consider how best to engage with different stakeholders.
Checklists and project management frameworks can add structure where this is needed. And writing up Q&A guides early on will help inform conversations or responses to e-mails.
Sustrans is here to help
As I said, it has been an exciting time for local authority transport teams, although it’s been a challenge to work at pace!
But local authorities don’t need to go it alone when designing, implementing or engaging on new walking and cycling schemes.
If you’d like to find out how Sustrans might be able to support you, get in touch with your local Sustrans office. We’re here to help.