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Community Panels

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Brief description of technique

Residents are recruited for regular consultation. This contact might be via the telephone, written surveys or discussion groups.

Participants may be attitudinally and demographically matched to the community as a whole which is the case in Wyndham City Council (refer case study below).

To what kinds of consultation situations is this approach best suited?

Community Panels can be used for a variety of purposes, from Best Value to getting prompt responses on urgent issues. While they might be more appropriately used for municipality-wide issues, the growth and consolidation of a Panel may lend itself to use for small area developments and plans for changing neighbourhoods, depending on the quality of the contact details of Panel Members maintained by the council.

How much time is generally needed?

Participants are usually asked to commit to the Panel for a fixed term. A commitment of a number of years is required for optimum results.

How are target populations identified and approached?

Typically, random sampling is used with up to 2000 participants. Attempts can be made to ensure that the sample represents the full spectrum of residents' views and to be broadly representative demographically.

Typically, random sampling is used with up to 2000 participants, reached by telephone, through written surveys or recruited at community meetings.

If the Panel is intended to represent the full spectrum of residents' views and to be broadly representative demographically, it must be selected initially to meet these criteria and re-tested at regular intervals.

What are the skills required?

Statistical analysis, survey development skills, and database management skills.

Qualitative analysis is integral to Wyndham's approach.

What kind of information do participants require prior to their involvement?

Need to know the level of involvement required of them and their rights in relation to privacy/confidentiality safeguards.

They should know that at any time they can resign from the process.

Brief outline of how the process usually works

Panel participants are sourced from the community and briefed on their involvement. They are issued a unique code number to ensure confidentiality. Participants are consulted every six to eight weeks.

Questions and methods are developed to meet the needs of the staff requesting the information. Different methods are used - telephone interviews and questionnaires by mail are most common, but occasionally Panel members have participated in community workshops, focus groups or forums.

The research feedback is then compiled in an appropriate format, and given back to the staff area which requested the information. Panel input, together with many other types of community input form the basis for much - but by no means all - of Council's priority setting and corporate planning processes.

What level of reporting back to participants occurs?

A summary of results is distributed regularly, providing feedback from the latest Panel, details of topics discussed, results found and other new issues to be followed up with the next Panel consultation. This is commonly distributed by way of newsletter or broadsheet.

This information will also include actions and implementation strategies undertaken by council in response to the issues raised by the Panel discussions.

How is this approach usually evaluated?

Ongoing - it provides longitudinal information which can compared as information is compiled over years.

Where the Panel make-up is matched to the community as a whole, its constitution is re-tested annually for attitudinal similarity to random survey sample.

Strengths
  • Easing the burden on the community: Council departments are able to channel their information requests through the Research Officer; a survey may address questions from several departments. Also, people who would prefer not to be surveyed are spared in Panel surveys.
  • Cost effectiveness: In a random survey, a majority of calls are refusals or non-responses. With the Panel, interviewers know when respondents are likely to be at home, and that they are willing to do the survey. Savings in research expenditure can result.
  • Longitudinal data: Most surveys can only provide a snapshot at a particular moment in time. As Panel members respond over months and years, changes can be tracked for example attitudes or satisfaction with services to life changes.
  • Unbiased data: Most consultations attract certain types of people more then others. For example, special interest groups or small groups with a particular point of view can dominate consultations. Where matched attitudinally and demographically, the Panel does not replace stakeholder consultations, but allows it to be balanced against a whole-of-community perspective.
Weaknesses
  • Where random sampling forms the basis of inclusion in the Panel (as opposed to attitudinal and demographic matching) the process is not necessarily an accurate method of sampling and does not guarantee an accurate representation of the population. Extra care will need to be taken to ensure the recruitment of under-represented groups.
Resources Required
  • This can vary but will rely on ongoing staffing for developing and maintaining relevant databases and continuing to engage Panel members in related activities. Depending on the method used to contact members, casual or contract staff will be required as well as adequate phone and computer facilities.


This information has been put together with the assistance of Wyndham City Council's Research Unit.

CASE STUDY

Council or other authority
Wyndham City Council
Name of Project
Wyndham Household Panel
Date of consultation
Ongoing consultation tool.
Aim of consultation

To enable representative, integrated and frequent resident input to a variety of Council activities and programs.

Consultation methods used

Household Panel

Description of consultation

What is the Household Panel?

The Panel is a key element of Wyndham City Council's core research/community engagement program. It consists of over four hundred Wyndham households who have agreed to be surveyed every six to eight weeks. To prevent bias, Council has taken steps to ensure that the attitudes of the Panel reflect those of the muncipality's residents as a whole.

How was the Panel established?

Late in 1999, Council was conducting a large number of surveys and response rates were dropping. Many of the surveys were developed and sent out by individual departments, with little overall coordination or quality control. The Household Panel was set up to provide an alternative.

Two major random surveys were conducted, one mailed out and another conducted by telephone. Each had similar key questions, and each had the same final question.

Some people don't like receiving surveys and feel that they get surveyed too often. Other people like the chance to offer their perspective. Council is setting up a Panel of residents who are willing to do a short survey each month - written or over the telephone. Would you be interested?

Respondents willing to be surveyed on a monthly basis became part of the Panel. Since then, a brief survey ending in the same question has become part of the new residents' kit and invitations to join the Panel are included in other community consultations.

How do we know that the Panel is really representative of the community as a whole?

The Panel can only be truly effective if it represents the full spectrum of residents' views - and in the same proportion as in the community as a whole. If the Panel contains too many people with very positive views, the results will be biased and much less valuable. Similarly, if the Panel contains a high proportion of people who joined because they wanted to express very strong negative views, the Panel results will be less trustworthy.

To ensure that the original Panel was representative, Council analysed the responses of people who joined the Panel and people who refused, for every question on the survey. The Panel - as a group - was within a 1% - 3% range of non-Panel responses for every question. Panel members were less likely to respond 'don't know' and to have definite views, but the relative proportion of positive and negative views mirrored the community's very closely.

To ensure that this remains the case, the Panel is re-tested against a large random sample each year.

Demographics are also a concern. The Panel is broadly representative, but targeted recruiting is focusing on a few age groups, family types and certain ethnic groups which still appear to be under-represented.

How is the Panel used?

A Panel can potentially be used for many purposes, from Best Value to getting very quick responses on urgent issues. Wyndham's Panel runs on a regular schedule, so that staff enquiries must fit into community convenience. Panel members have provided responses on a wide range of topics, from substance abuse issues to shopping patterns, and from home-based business growth to satisfaction ratings with Council services.

Each year, Panel residents do a 'life events' survey which looks at changes in their life over the year - in jobs and income, family structure, home ownership, community activities, etc. This enables Council to build up a longitudinal picture of life in Wyndham. Since we have the postal address of each Panel member, we are also able to look at small area developments, and plan for changing neighbourhoods.

Success of the consultation

The longitudinal database

The maintenance of a longitudinal database is key to the success of the Panel. Research and consultation results are entered into the database, and qualitative information is categorised using software such as N6 or NVIVO. This enables Council to track perceptions and attitudinal changes in much greater detail than would be possible with statistical data, or with coded comments.

The database now has almost five years of data, and can serve as an initial information base for most of the issues Council deals with. This has led to substantial savings - in staff time and in community burden, as well as cost.

For example, no question has ever been asked on a survey about the river which flows through the city. Nevertheless, when a question was raised about changing attitudes to the river, a five minute search of the database showed significant changes over four years. Three hours of work produced a report showing the evolution of attitudes year by year, and likely reasons for the changes revealed by the data. Clearly, this approach is faster and much more cost-effective than developing and implementing a survey.

Similarly, a question about public safety is asked once a year, but the question does not ask about people's greatest concerns. However, a search of the database showed revealed this. Interestingly, the mere presence of young people in public places - particularly young men - was most closely associated with safety concerns, ranking even higher than crime or substance abuse. This finding is leading to changes in city programming.

Management issues with the Panel

The Panel is resource-intensive. It requires a multi-year commitment to be truly effective, as well as a combination of statistical and database management expertise, as well as survey development. Qualitative data is integral to Wyndham's approach, so that qualitative analysis (N6 and NVIVO) is also critical. Standard Council research management and quality control measures also apply to the Panel surveys, including data entry audits, 5% keystroke checks, data cleaning, etc.

There are also management issues specific to the Panel. Maintaining loyalty, and sustaining Panel members' willingness to be surveyed, is a major issue, and Wyndham has worked out a number of strategies for doing this. These do not include any financial incentives. Instead, Panel members have received birthday cards (hand-written, not computer generated).

We are looking at other ways to maintain members' sense of engagement, but need to ensure that we are not transforming the Panel into a group with its own identity, separate from the community as a whole. This year a Panel newsletter is being piloted, outlining the results of previous surveys. To ensure that Panel members are not receiving information which other community members do not receive, we will be providing the same information in public places throughout the municipality. Minimising member turnover is an important goal, but far less important than maintaining a Panel similar to the community as a whole.

Confidentiality, compliance with new privacy legislation, and the ongoing maintenance and linking of databases are also important, and protocols have been worked out for these issues.

Other comments

Resourcing

Council has one Research Officer, responsible for Council's entire core research program (of which the Panel is one element). There is assistance from casual staff for many of the tasks ResourcingCouncil has one Research Officer, responsible for Council's entire core research program (of which the Panel is one element). There is assistance from casual staff for many of the tasks involved in running the Panel, including phone interviews and data entry. We have found that local teenagers, with appropriate training, support and supervision, have worked out well in these positions.

External interest

Wyndham's Research Unit raises a part of its budget by offering consulting services to external agencies such as other councils, universities, etc. Several Victorian Councils have decided to implement Panels in their local areas and have contracted Wyndham's Research Unit to handle the initial set-up.

The Panel recently won a national award from the Dept of Transport and Regional Services for Innovation in Local Government, in the Community Services category.

Since that time, Wyndham has been asked to present the concept to regional, national and international audiences, including the Commonwealth Local Government Forum in Brisbane and the International City/County Managers Association Best Practices Symposium. Requests for further information have since come from other regions of Australia, and from countries as diverse as the UK, the USA and Fiji.

Other aspects of Council's core research program used in conjunction with the Panel, including the focus on qualitative data, caught the attention of the United Nations. Council's Research Officer was contracted to set up a qualitative database in East Timor similar to Wyndham's, and train staff in how to use it. The database has been used to support a national visioning exercise to identify priorities for action in the new nation.

Contact person
Name: Emma Williams/Ross Goeman Position: Corporate Planner/Research Officer
Phone number: 03 9742 0776/ 03 9742 0705

Email: [email protected]
[email protected]


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