How do you engage a diverse and demanding community?
“A lot of people now want to know how the construction impacts them”, says Kath Mardon. She works as Community Engagement Officer for the City of Charles Sturt Council in Adelaide Australia. Residents pay rates there, to assist upgrading and renewing of their community assets. That is exactly what their largest project to date, The Military Road and Main Street & Plaza Upgrade, was all about. Community engagement, “that is my whole job” and as people do not like to see community funds go to waste “their eyes are on us!”
This is Kath’s story about how SitePodium assisted her during a large and challenging upgrade in a quiet coastal suburb in Australia.
The Military Road and Main Street & Plaza Upgrade
Work on the Military Road and Main Street & Plaza Upgrade Project that Kath worked on as a Community Engagement Officer started in October 2021 and was finished on time and within budget at the end of 2022. It was a challenging endeavour, involving renovation of a community plaza, a roundabout and several interchanges. Buses needed to be rerouted, roads were closed for periods of time and parking spaces and, on occasion, access was compromised for local businesses and residents. For more than a year, life in and around the area was disrupted.
Imagine an Australian coastal suburb, a small pocket with a mix of residents, external visitors and businesses huddled together. It is used for (family) living, shopping, visits to the beach and socialising. The upgrade of the area would make it even more accessible, safe and attractive. But how do you engage a diverse and demanding community with the project? Kath and her manager at the City of Charles Sturt Council decided to use SitePodium.
The challenge: engaging a diverse and demanding community
The groups impacted by a large construction project right in the middle of this area are diverse; you have business and their staff in need of a parking place, local residents going about their daily lives, commuters and also visitors to the precinct for a day of shopping or a visit to the beach. The project that Kath was working on would have a major impact on all these community groups.
She knew that a project this complex “required something different from old-school communication methods.” Residents would be impacted greatly and sometimes it is hard to make them understand the bigger picture and the benefits for them in the long run. That is when SitePodium became the main source for project updates.
“SitePodium was the best solution that we found to deliver our key messages to everybody.”
Old-school methods would not cut it
Kath has ample experience with working on construction projects. The most common method of informing community members was through door-to-door conversations, newsletters, SMS-systems and the council website. As Kath rightly points out, the problem with these methods is that the communication is mostly one-way.
For a project as complex as the Military Road and Main Street & Plaza Upgrade, these methods of communication would simply not cut it. “My job is managing the residents’ expectations”, she says, and that also involves listening to what they have to say. Her council had used SitePodium with previous larger projects and introduced Kath to the app. The alternative option, umbrella software that could distribute information to the community through text messages, seemed insufficient in comparison.
Kath and her team chose SitePodium for several reasons: “We got positive feedback from our State Government, the complexity of the project required it and it was a quick win for us.” Implementation was easily done. “It is the easiest app I ever used”, she says, and with the help of a rep on site she soon got the hang of the back-end part of it as well. Kath and her team hoped that SitePodium would become the go-to source of information about the project.
“We wanted to make sure that we could get to people instantly, rather than having to keep sending out notifications. People do not tend to look at their letterbox, so working out what we had to send out was quick and easy through SitePodium.”
Promotion and spreading the word
The SitePodium platform for the Military Road and Main Street & Plaza Upgrade had 257 followers who all regularly viewed the updates placed and participated. They emphasised SitePodium as the main source of information about the project in all communication sent out. The City of Charles Sturt Council Facebook page is used for the more general news, but there would always be a link to SitePodium added to the posts about this project.
Apart from that, the information that was available on the app was also displayed on the website. That way people did not have to download the app to see what was going on. When asked about reactions to SitePodium, Kath is very positive: “There was only one person who objected to downloading another app to their phone.”
From implementation onwards, SitePodium became the app the community went to for updates and information. Even the internal stakeholders were using it, to get a feel for the external attitude towards the project and the level of interaction. “We all had it on our phone, so even my manager and our team had it. Everyone who wanted to know about this project, could have a look in SitePodium.”
It was not all plain sailing
This all sounds very positive, but using such an app on a complex project such as this, also raised a few challenges.
Communicating with visitors to the area
Kath was not only dealing with residents and local businesses. She also had to inform or redirect people visiting the site from elsewhere. These visitors would not have SitePodium installed on their phone. Because of that, she understood that SitePodium could not be the only means of communication during this project.
During the duration of the upgrade, she and her colleagues would walk around the area, gauging where people would come in and where they had to be directed to. They signposted detours, used pavement stickers and handed out detour maps.
Changing information that has already gone out
“The information you send out is only as good as what you are getting. If it is not right or things are changing and we are not being advised, then that makes it difficult”, Kath remarks. That is why they used SitePodium for information about scheduled work, milestones and generic maps for road closures. Information that has to go out immediately is better communicated face-to-face or through the letterbox.
Having said that, Kath remembers a situation where she was asked by a resident why something was not communicated on SitePodium. They received the notification in their letterbox, but obviously started to rely on SitePodium as their first and foremost source of information. Kath: “It is funny how one person who is right in the project precinct was relying on SitePodium for certain information when we would be dropping him some information in his letterbox anyway.”
Different types of communication for different stakeholders
Another thing that Kath realised as she worked on the Military Road and Main Street & Plaza Upgrade is that you cannot use the same type of communication with all the stakeholders. Even though the internal stakeholders did have SitePodium installed on their phones, it was more for them to see the progress and successes of engaging the community, rather than for getting information themselves.
That is why, according to Kath, “the messages we sent out on SitePodium might have been a bit different from what was sent out to the businesses.” They used email communication to direct the businesses, letters in letterboxes, personal communication for high-impact work and SitePodium for everything related to the project and construction.
Once this communication system was set up, the experience with SitePodium was very positive. Kath likes how it is able to reach people instantly and then the receivers can react and tell you how they feel. “It is a two-way communication between stakeholders and project leaders”, she says, which makes it superior to the one-way methods they were using in the past.
Apart from that Kath enjoys that it is user-friendly, that mistakes can be edited and posts can be scheduled. She would recommend it for long-term complex projects.
“I loved SitePodium. I love being able to provide people with instant information and I am typing it once. I do not have to walk down the street and post it in people’s letterboxes”.
Communicating the bigger picture to a demanding audience
One of the biggest challenges in a diverse area such as what Kath was working on, is to get people to understand the bigger picture. She says: “The bigger picture is something that we as a council always have to refer back to. Why are we doing a project? What is the outcome of the project and how does it benefit the community?” It is a matter that Community Engagement Officers struggle with throughout the world.
SitePodium proved useful for sending out the message that this project was temporary and that the outcome would be worth it. Kath regularly posted milestone photos, to make the user aware of progress. They also managed the expectation of the surrounding residents and businesses by putting messages on SitePodium which clearly told them what they could expect and why.
“The outcome of the project and the benefit to the community really outweighs everything that has happened. It is always referring back to: these are the reasons why we are doing what we are doing and it is for the benefit to the people who live there plus the visitors.”
A celebration of achievements
Once the project was finished on time and within budget, this was celebrated with a get-together at the new plaza. There were speeches, a didgeridoo performance and entertainment throughout the day.
It turned out to be a very hot day, and Kath remembers it well: “Right at the end we had a project celebration where we invited everyone in the precinct, we put it up on SitePodium inviting people, we sent invitations out, we had a marquee, everything. The icing on the cake has been being able to celebrate something and sharing that and the outcome of this whole project with the community. And offering them something in return for some of the inconveniences.”
Hindsight is a wonderful thing
Looking back on The Military Road and Main Street & Plaza Upgrade, Kath is definitely proud of the way she brought the community and the project together. There are always people who complain, but in general using SitePodium has made it easier for her to really engage those around.
Kath is certain that she will use SitePodium again in the future, for larger projects to come. Lessons were learned about what different stakeholders want to know and when they should be told. What would she do differently? She would think about ways to promote it better, so that all communication can go through SitePodium, reaching everyone.
“If SitePodium was the key app that everyone knew and used and we could send out information to people, then that would be in an ideal world”, she fantasises. We could not agree with her more; at SitePodium we aim for nothing less.