Community Panels: consistent consultation in small regional towns

Lake Tyers Beach panel

Lake Tyers Beach Community Panel

Consulting with communities over the long-term in small regional towns in Australia presents similar challenges to consultation in cities.

How do you target the right people for consultation?

How do you keep people engaged for long-term projects?

It is a myth that small towns folk have more time on their hands than their busy city cousins. People who live in small regional towns are often actively involved in a number of activities and often serve on many local committees. To ask them to participate in a research or evaluation project can be met with reluctance. I am using an approach that respects their time whilst also addressing the needs of my project.

Small Town Transformations is a Victorian initiative designed to work with six small regional towns to use the arts to transform their town. As the evaluator of this initiative for Regional Arts Victoria, a key component is tracking community sentiment over the two year funded period and beyond.

To tap into the local community mood obviously requires talking with people. An obvious approach may be to go where the people are––when they meet––such as at community meeting, business events or sports days. Perhaps conduct ad-hoc focus groups or surveys at these places at various times throughout the project. But there are limitations to this approach.

Instead, I have set up Community Panels in each of the 6 towns, which will remain in place for a two year period. Community Panels are made up of between 8-15 purposefully selected local community members who are self declared as being well connected in their communities. They include local business owners and active community members who claim to have their finger on the pulse in terms of what is going on in their community. These individuals are in a position to be able to confidently report on community sentiment in their small town. I insisted they were not directly involved in the local Small Town Transformation project, as I wanted some degree of impartiality.

There are three key benefits to using Community Panels over ad-hoc research methods for this evaluation:

Benefit #1: Consultation is ongoing and iterative 

The community panel consultation is ongoing and iterative. Conversations with community panel members will facilitate much richer interaction than random surveys or focus groups may achieve, by establishing real relationships with local community members over time.

Benefit #2: Sampling consistency is maintained

By using the same individuals over time, we have a consistent sample, without any variation in sample size or sample profiling. This means we are able to control the ‘within-person variance’, so that any changes in findings over time can only be attributed to variables of interest in the initiative, rather than inconsistencies with sampling. This makes the evaluation more reliable and sets up a process of data collection that can be repeated in the future or for ongoing monitoring of the program.

Benefit #3:  Analysis and research may be deeper

Ad-hoc surveys are limited by space and time and barely scratch the surface of who the respondents are. With a community panel, every interaction is an opportunity to gain more insight into the individuals participating, and we will be able to monitor changes in views over time, as well as cross-reference previous results against current results for greater meaning.

I have just returned from the six small towns that are part of the Small Town Transformations initiative. I have met my six community panels and set them up for the tasks ahead. We discussed what it was like to live in the town and I took a reading on community sentiment before the local project activities begin. I will track these measures over time and compare and contrast the findings between the towns.

As with all continuous research, one must expect some level of attrition over time. Some people may feel the need to leave the group along the way. This is no different in regional communities as it is in the city. But because this evaluation is qualitative in nature, is it the quality of respondents and their contribution that is more important than their participation numbers. My challenge will be to make Community Panel activities easy, interesting, meaningful to the panel members and not time consuming. Only then can I expect attrition rates to be low and data quality to be high.

I look forward to getting to know these communities over time and hopefully collecting high quality data from the use of Community Panels.

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