Crispin Fu 17 September 2014

Digital engagement

As the economy recovers from recession, the challenge is to build sustainable local growth. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) are charged with the delivery of this growth as much as Central Government, if not more so.

While LEPs look set to survive the next General Election, few have the levels of public awareness required to show a demonstrable impact on local growth. A report from the ICAEW found that 90% of exporters are unfamiliar with LEPs. In addition, Central Government feedback has criticised LEPs for lacking the local knowledge required to create strategic growth plans.

If LEPs want to secure future funding and, more importantly, drive sustainable local growth, they need to do more to bring community, commercial and public bodies together.

Digital engagement – using social media and other online channels to communicate directly with the public – gives LEPs the opportunity to tap into rich conversations about local economic growth. Better use of these channels, which remain under-explored and under-utilised in the public sector, would allow LEPs to listen to the public and discuss issues and solutions with them. This would help LEPs create growth plans that are local, meaningful and sustainable.

Digital engagement

Digital channels enable direct communication with stakeholders in a cost, time and resource-effective manner – challenging traditional approaches to public consultation. This is something that many businesses have already discovered, while the public sector too often sees social media as a one-way channel to broadcast messages. Crowd-sourcing, seeking ideas from groups of individuals online, is one way that LEPs can use digital tools to gain insight and collaborate with the public. The RSA/Northbank Good Business Challenge, for example, provides an online platform to make a consultation more than just a ‘box-ticking’ exercise by allowing people to suggest new ideas publicly to generate support.

Meanwhile, Run That Town is a mobile app that uses census data to allow local citizens to make choices about new civic projects and see their impact. Increasing the number of people involved, including those less likely to be engaged through traditional means, provides new insight and can also create powerful community groups to take on tasks and projects.

Providing a local focus

Whatever the size of an organisation, social media can create instantaneous communication with online communities if used effectively. Digital channels can also be focused at a very local level, helping to create a sense of community and attract new rents while championing local businesses. As LEPs could be using these channels to initiate and respond to the conversations they are supposedly leading – such as highlighting barriers to growth, promoting key skills and identifying new infrastructure – one could argue that not doing so represents a wasted opportunity.

Spitalfields market, the historic covered market in East London, is an example of an enterprise that has embraced social media in a way that hasn’t been achieved by local government. The market has an established Twitter presence, with over 16,000 followers, and it uses the platform to market itself while helping traders connect to social networks and grow their businesses. Its successful use of Twitter stands in contrast to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (in which Spitalfields located), which has less than half as many followers.

Using analytics to understand the local community

Businesses are already using analytics tools with social media to gain a better understanding of their customers and trends. Tapping into this rich seam of real-time data could provide LEPs with genuine insight into the priorities and concerns of their local communities.

The London Borough of Hounslow has used these tools to provide intelligence on its own performance, including its traffic hotspots and contact-centre performance. LEPs cannot be everywhere at once but accessing social intelligence from their communities will provide them with much deeper local knowledge. This intelligence could enable LEPs to identify businesses struggling to access adequate internet connections as well as clusters of microbusinesses. It could also help them understand the ‘push and pull’ factors influencing locals and visitors. VThe examples outlined above present a number of ideas for LEPs to use digital channels to further their aims. But embracing digital engagement doesn’t mean simply jumping into multiple initiatives without sufficient forethought. Instead, LEPs should consider their overall strategy and how digital techniques can add the most value.

As a start, they should seek to answer the following questions: How could social intelligence give us a deeper understanding of the region we represent? How can we tap into local knowledge using social networks to write more collaborative and compelling bids? And which proposals and initiatives require the most support and could benefit most from the use of digital platforms?

By answering these questions, LEPs will be taking their first steps towards using digital engagement to improve how they engage and collaborate with local people. In turn, this will help them shape and deliver sustainable local growth.

Crispin Fu is a local government expert at PA Consulting Group

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