What happens when community outreach activities are not properly planned & co-ordinated


Some harsh community outreach lessons learnt from an event in my neighbourhood

I took Puffles along to a community safety event today. The emergency services pulled out all of the stops, hiring a community sports centre for the day. Three fire engines, two ambulances and a police car, along with representatives from Cambridge City Council’s ‘City Rangers’ and anti-social behaviour team. As far as front-line turnout was concerned, it was impressive. The problem was, hardly any members of the public turned up.

NEWZ-SPOOF: "Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue despatch three fire engines following reports of fire breathing dragon in neighbourhood!"
NEWZ-SPOOF: “Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue despatch three fire engines following reports of fire breathing dragon in neighbourhood!”

“Why did hardly anyone turn up?”

It was a damp, drizzly bank holiday weekend – the last one before everyone goes back to school. The high street was absolutely dead for much of the afternoon, which meant the two PCSOs at the event – one of whom I was at school with, had their work cut out trying to encourage members of the public to pop their heads round to see what was going on.

Puffles with PCSO Sarah Finbow of Cambridgeshire Police
Puffles with PCSO Sarah Finbow of Cambridgeshire Police

“Why didn’t everyone talk to each other?!? It’s common sense!!!”

Actually, it isn’t common sense. When you are dealing with a number of different organisations alongside the mobilisation of what was a significant number of assets – in this case vehicles, you can’t expect talking alone to pay dividends. If anything, it reminds me of the kicking Puffles gave the local voluntary services infrastructure just under a year ago (see here), where also I said in no uncertain terms at their AGM that coming out with conclusions such as ‘We need to improve how we work together’ will no longer wash. The same is true here. Saying ‘we need to improve how we plan things’ without any specifics will also be insufficient.

“Was the event a failure?”

In one sense, you can only answer that question if you know what the success criteria were. But given that there were more members of the emergency services there than members of the public, the cost of putting on that event in terms of staff time alone far outweighed any benefit given the turnout. Which was a big shame because they did some very interesting displays and presentations.

This is why you don't pour water on chip pan fires.
This is why you don’t pour water on chip pan fires. This is also the sort of display that gets children engaged in both what fire fighters do, and the dangers of fire.


“I’m assuming you’ve got a big list of lessons learnt”

It’s actually more of the same really – building on from what I wrote when I addressed the full council of Cambridge City Council last month – see here. Speaking to various uniformed and public sector personnel at the event, there were a number of things that stood out:

  1. Cambridge and the surrounding area needs a community development strategy – one that applies geographically rather than one limited by institutionalised or administrative boundaries.
  2. Public sector institutions locally need to overhaul their training and development policies for their staff – in particular when it comes to dealing with social and digital media. (I declare a financial interest as a trainer, but the point still applies)
  3. Frontline community workers in and around Cambridge are acutely aware of their own training needs and that of their communities around digital and social media – hence being more than pleased when I turned up with posters advertising the free training sessions put on by Cambridge Online.

Point 3) for me is actually the most important. Like a magnet attracting iron filings, communities using digital and social media effectively will inevitably attract the attention of the local institutions that want to engage with them. With the posters, all I did was to go where ‘the people’ go – in particular those with the most needs. Libraries, community centres, customer service centres, hospitals, clinics, the job centre in town, tea and coffee shops, even churches.

In doing all of this – actively seeking out where all these notice boards are, it is clear that there are very vibrant communities dotted about all over the place. You only have to look at the little notices for the activities that are listed. At the same time, what is happening on community noticeboards does not seem to be crossing over into what’s happening online. I get a sense that we have a number of different communities living parallel lives – living side by side but hardly noticing each other.

“How do you make people more aware of each other, and of what is out there?”

This comes back to the importance of planning, mapping and base-lining. You can’t just put on an event, put up a poster or press release and expect people to rock up on the day. The days of broadcast-only communications are obsolete. People want and expect far more. But where to start. Hence the importance of finding out where we currently are. For example:

  • Where are all the community centres located?
  • Where are all the noticeboards located?
  • Where do people go that don’t have noticeboards, and vice-versa?
  • Which institutions have community outreach staff – and what are their contact details?
  • What are the current awareness levels and skills levels of the different communities – what are their needs and wants?
  • What, according to the communities themselves are the barriers to getting more involved with what happens in their areas?
  • What are the things that organisations are doing that make things more difficult for people to get involved? (For example it could be something as basic as cutbacks to bus services, to a medical condition not being addressed)
  • Which are the community groups that are conspicuous by their absence? (It may not be the ones that fall into the standard definitions as set out in the Equalities Act 2010, but something much more nuanced and localised – for example rail or guided bus commuters into and out of the city).

“Yeah Pooffles, that sounds like lots of hard work in an era of cutbacks”

Don’t I know it! The thing is, I’ve not seen any evidence of any person or organisation really going out of their way to get under the skin of the challenges. Not that in an era of high pressure and big cuts that people can find the time for such things. Saying ‘you must make time’ is easier said than done when you are either metaphorically or literally fighting fires with a reduced headcount.

That’s not saying no one has done such a community mapping exercise – it’s just not been publicised in a manner that’s easy for someone like me to pick up on. This is one of my ‘lessons learnt’ from running Teacambs over the past 18 months or so. For the first year or so, everything was done exclusively through social media. It was only when National Audit Office allowed Puffles and I to gatecrash a workshop they were running did I realise that I had run far to far ahead of the people I wanted to bring along with me. Hence a change of tack.

There is also still a mindset in and around Cambridge that it is the institution that matters – and that if you are not inside one of them you don’t count. This is something I’ve noticed in a big way comparing when I was inside the civil service to now being outside of it.

First Parliamentary Counsel and Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office asks Puffles for advice on managing Cabinet Office Twitter accounts
First Parliamentary Counsel and Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office asks Puffles for advice on managing Cabinet Office Twitter accounts

On a couple of occasions I’ve been welcomed as if I was someone carrying the plague. I’ve also got to accept that having Puffles with me brings its own barriers too.

Not everyone gets Puffles. Not everyone wants to get Puffles or social media either.

But what they miss are the exchanges Puffles has such as this one.


Yes, this is Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office and First Parliamentary Counsel discussing how to manage corporate Twitter accounts with Puffles. Richard has met Puffles and myself before, so he knows who he is dealing with and also shows a level of comfort using Twitter not often seen by senior managers in large organisations – especially one so politically sensitive as Cabinet Office. So credit where it’s due to Richard. The other part of the story is that I was one several external advisers to the Government Digital Service that sits within Cabinet Office on the creation of the civil service’s social media guidance. (See if you can spot Puffles being mentioned on this Cabinet Office web page announcing the new guidance.)

“What are the lessons learnt from this event?”

The most important thing for me is that I have an understanding of the scale of the challenge. Talking to people on the front line showed to me the gap that needs to be bridged, as well as getting some ideas on how to do so – mindful of tight budgets. Hence the importance locally of free social media surgeries like Net-Squared Cambridge. Personally I think there’s scope for running similar free ones inside the emergency services – with volunteers such as ourselves or even students from secondary schools and colleges, going through the basics for those that want to. (It’s the advice on social media policies, strategies and training delivery that we earn our commission with).

The other important thing of note for me is the focus on ‘corporate’ social media profiles rather than individual work/professional ones. In that regard, the institutions are a a few years behind the pioneers in local government. People want to engage with a human being at the other end – unless it’s a mascot such as Puffles’ distant cousin at the Welsh Assembly, Funky the Dragon/Draig Ffynci, or Smithy the police dog at West Midlands Police. What I’d like to see over the next 12 months is citizen-facing public servants being supported in their use of social media to engage with the public. Police officers, fire fighters, community nurses, city rangers, you name it.

And finally, a plug for the Mayor of Cambridge’s charity event

The Mayor of Cambridge is hosting an auction of promises at the Cambridge Guildhall on Wednesday 16 October. It’s for a local youth charity, Centre33 (see here) that helped me immensely after I graduated over a decade ago. Puffles is going and has already reserved a table. Please see here for more details.


7 thoughts on “What happens when community outreach activities are not properly planned & co-ordinated

  1. This angers me on so many level.
    Firstly, the showing of shiny vehicles at a public event will do nothing to reduce crime ( I am guessing that that was the aim!)
    Secondly, community engagement is not something that the police and other organisations in uniform can or are trained to do- it is a skilled profession of which most of us as now out of work!
    Next, what a waste of money! As with a lot of the new PCCs, they are throwing money at senior officers, on meeting ‘road- shows’ to get the same 5 usual suspects as the condemned police authorities got ( yes , if you do what you always do, you get what you always got!!! Common sense)
    Next did they even think what this was going to achieve. Probably not, lets just go and meet the public, of course they will be grateful and turn up in their hundreds- I dont think so!
    Did anyone actually want this! People know what a police car and fire engine look like! These events are great in poor areas that need somewhere to take their kids for the afternoon and pick -up freebees but in the centre of Cambridge! People rightly so have far more interesting things to do.
    Yep- its made me mad on all these levels. Community engagement is albout more than a few fire trucks and a ‘didnt we do well’ attitude, its about real engagement and solid participation and a lack of patronising the public. If Cambridge want a successful even recommend they get an expert in to train their staff first

  2. This sounds a good event, and it’s disappointing that it wasn’t better supported. I wonder how it was advertised. My own family had other things on yesterday, but I have to say that as a personwith a child in the target age range, I hadn’t heard about it until I saw your post on the Queen Edith’s Facebook page.

    You are right in that different groups need to be well networked and cross-promote events: eg the CHYPPS Team and holiday clubs would have been good places to publicise a fire event, posters in parks etc.

    The ‘era of cutbacks’ is no reason for organizations not to network; if anything, it’s MORE important to get best value out of events like this by making sure the right people know about them

  3. This is a really useful post and mirrors my experiences recently at an event that my local health trust held in partnership with the Town Council about significant changes to the organisation of our local hospitals – almost everyone attending either was politically linked to the council or otherwise involved, because there had been little effort to get word out to the ‘normal’ residents.

    I think I’m going to pass on your tips and lessons learnt to the Council as although my County Council are pretty good, the Town Council says they want to involve residents more and I think by following your tips they might find this easier to achieve.

  4. An excellent wake up call. I just hope it is read by those who need to read it – and acted on. Whilst you are writing about Cambridge it is I am sure very similar elsewhere.

    To add two points that occur to me: One location I don’t think you’ve specifically mentioned where people already gather is “the supermarket” like it or not, supermarkets are where many people now go and over the past few years I’ve found that to be an excellent place to engage. (Including incidentally when engaging about priorities for our local Neighbourhood Policing priorities.)

    Secondly, too often now, some [organisations] seize on the web and/or social media as being “the answer” – as if that was all that was needed. “Put it on the website and everyone will know”. No, they will not. It is up to those organising an event, consultation or whatever, to – or at least try to – take all sorts of steps to get the message over – in as many different ways as possible. One is not enough! Rather like “we put a public notice in the local newspaper, didn’t you see it”.

    Your list as examples for finding out where we are is a very good summary – we could do with others being documented – it would be a good starting point for people to use to check against to decide if they have done enough or could do more.

    Even with social media and/or websites, there is little point in putting much effort into “promoting” something by those means – without some idea of how it is then going to be seen by people. Otherwise it will be down to chance. If you have a following of many thousands on Twitter then just tweeting something may be enough – but not many organisations have a following like that.

    As you’ve said there needs to be planning, co-ordination and networking – work beforehand and during to ensure the message is effective and disseminated.

  5. Where was it advertised, and who organised it?

    I disagree in some sense with what you say re advertising in traditional ways not bring enough all the time. It’s about targeting your advertising to make it relevant to whom you want to attend. For eg I held s meeting about the green dragon bridge, and primarily just stuck posters up on the bridge, bit got a good spread of people from that.

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