Our final FTVG feature is on the About Community Engagement (Team ACE) project, formed of Katie Lamb from Transport for the South East, Agnese Polonara from Systra, with Abigail Harris, Carla Strimbei, and Ellie Hodges from WSP.
The project focuses on delivering “meaningful engagement”, particularly in rural communities. Meaningful engagement benefits everyone and improves the success of transport schemes, empowers communities, and has the potential to stimulate behaviour change – all of which have a positive impact on environmental, economic, and social well-being. Additionally engagement on contentious transport projects can be a key determiner of their success or failure.
Katie sets the scene further;
“Statutory engagement can often end up being a tick-box exercise and fail to reflect a true representation of people and their needs. This can lead to people feeling their input does not matter.”
Many factors are often quoted as barriers to engagement, from lack of interest from the public, to lack of time and resources. The team aimed to demonstrate how these barriers can be overcome in the context of engagement in rural communities, leading to the development of the ACE Toolkit – their website which acts as a one-stop-shop for engagement tips, tricks, and best practice.
Team ACE were brought together by a shared interest in rural mobility at one of FTVG’s collaboration workshops. Through the early stages of their project, FTVG provided funding and advice on how to focus their efforts.
“We were originally called the Rural Mobility Engagement Group, but thanks to the advice from the FTVG Steering Group, we decided to focus on engagement in rural communities as it is a key determining factor in the success of rural mobility schemes” said Carla.
In a rural setting, dispersed communities and more limited communication channels often mean that typical engagement methods aren’t always the most appropriate. This challenge formed the basis for the project as it began, as Agnese explains;
“Rural residents can feel left behind when it comes to transport planning, leaving many relying on personal vehicles or isolated due to declining public transport options. Effective and meaningful engagement is key to tackling these issues.”
With a defined rural focus, the project’s first phase delivered a literature review and industry insights survey, before testing some ideas in rural communities.
The team recognised the importance of testing any proposed new approaches with the rural communities they were targeting.
“We worked in partnership with Somerset Council to conduct initial engagement on their Local Transport Plan update” said Abby, “We are very appreciative of Somerset’s willingness to partner with us and their trust in our approaches and process.”
Starting with an online engagement survey, the team tested preferences for different engagement approaches as part of the Local Transport Plan update. They then hosted two public events in the villages of Dulverton and Watchet; and two focus groups with the Exmoor Focus Group and Somerset Bus Partnership, involving a total of nearly 300 participants.
The group reflected on the benefits and challenges this approach brought, with Ellie believing they were the most interesting and valuable activities on the project;
“These sessions gave us the possibility to test the findings and emerging tools. They were well received and offered engaging activities suitable for a variety of ages and abilities, generating discussion with several people asking questions about interventions”, she said.
Agnese agreed, adding; “It was interesting to hear how people talked about transport issues and needs of the whole community rather than just as individuals. This highlighted that engagement with rural communities can encompass the community as a whole, rather than specific issues impacting the lives of attendees.”
Carla noted that there were sometimes communication challenges when working in this environment;
“Sometimes we found it challenging to communicate the meaning of transport to our audience”, she said, “Some people did not engage, claiming that they did not use any form of transport, and they are unaware that this includes other topics including parking, roads, road safety, and active travel.”
However, the team took away some valuable lessons having been out to rural communities;
“Thanks to the presence of community leaders and elected officials during the activities, more people got involved” said Abby, “They provided a friendly-face that initiated introductions to the topic on our behalf.”
The findings helped the team to reflect on common mistakes and best practice for engaging with rural communities.
Based on the findings of their study, the team created the ACE Toolkit to provide a single source of information around how to start a conversation about transport, enable a co-creation process, gather support for a project, or find a solution to a transport issue.
These steps were summarised into an Engagement Roadmap which is now hosted on the ACE website to help guide anyone though the planning of an engagement event. Further resources including a worksheet and event planning checklist have also been created alongside this.
Ellie and Katie reflected on the two main lessons they took away from the project.
Ellie said, “For me this revealed the importance of community leaders and existing networks when starting out with rural engagement. Community leaders are well known, trusted ambassadors for their communities who understand the challenges, needs, and existing networks of communication of those we were engaging with best. We would encourage involving them as early as you can.”
Katie added “I also think it is important to ensure your messaging is clear and tailored. Our research highlighted the need to provide a feedback loop to ensure those involved feel heard and empowered to engage again. This sets a clear expectation of what their engagement means to the project, policy, or scheme. As part of our efforts, we provided follow ups and links back to our toolkit so respondents could see how their involvement shaped outcomes from our work.“
The team hope to build a bank of resources through their website, enhancing it with blogs and updates as their research evolves. They also wish to create a forum for rural engagement to be discussed amongst professionals that can truly pave the way from consultation to participatory engagement.
The groups key outputs can be found here: