In one of Europe’s youngest municipalities community engagement is a powerful force
Today we are featuring a conversation with Laura Kelhä from the Finnish municipality of Liminka. Laura tells about the importance of having creative ways for residents to participate and how listening to them has a powerful impact on the life of the city.
Tell us about Liminka? What kind of people and culture make up the city?
Liminka is a combination of history and youth. The history of Liminka goes far: the municipality was established in the year 1477 and is one the oldest municipalities in Finland. We are also the youngest municipality in Finland and one of the youngest in Europe.
Our average age is 30,6 years and 40 % of our inhabitants are under 19 years old. Liminka is a municipality for young nature loving active people.
How do you define a community? And how do you create it?
Well, that’s a hard question!
I think community means some sort of state of mind. A place where you are warmly welcomed and you can feel that you belong to somewhere. That you are looked after and somebody cares. It can also mean that you can participate in the things that interest you and be part of creating something new.
In Liminka we take care of each other. We want that everyone can participate and have their voice heard. The public services are for our inhabitants and they participate in the design process. In order for people to participate, we have to create an open and creative atmosphere that encourages people to participate and develop their own municipality.
Community is a place where you are warmly welcomed and you can feel that you belong
What does community engagement mean for Liminka?
I think that community engagement is essential when developing or building something new. We have to understand our inhabitants and what they want and need in their lives. And the best person to tell us that is the inhabitant her/himself.
All the development work needs to be based on our customers, in our case, the residents of our municipality. That’s why it is so important that we ask our people what they need and want, engage them in the development process and actively seek feedback from existing services. The political decision-making needs to reflect the needs and opinions of our residents. We have to have mechanism that bring people’s voice out.
When you talk to community members what do people want to talk about the most? Are there any surprising things that you discover about them or the city?
People are usually interested in matters that are close to them: their neighborhoods, daycare and schools,sports and re-creation, safety etc. The things that are close to them in their every-day lives.
What has been surprising is that much of the feedback and wishes that comes from our residents are everyday-things that, in most cases, are quite easy to take into consideration or even implement straight away.
What are some of your main community engagement challenges?
I think the main challenges are the involvement of the young people. As I told earlier, we are one of the youngest municipalities in all of Europe, so we need to make our community engagement so interesting that our youth are willing to participate too. We believe that our youngsters have a lot of good ideas that we can use for example in our youth services, sports venue construction, event planning and much more!
I think that one option is to utilize different digital tools and platforms. We have to have different ways and methods to engage and participate, because people too are different.
How do you use technology for Liminka’s community engagement processes? Are there advantages and disadvantages?
We have this digital community engagement app called Kaiku Liminka. We started with the app in December 2017. Since then, we have 640 app-users which is 6,3 % of our total population. Our goal is to reach 1 000 app-users in the near future. Not bad in my opinion!
We have used Kaiku in many of our development processes. For example, in our municipal strategy work, we tested our values and development needs and asked our residents what they thought of them. The answers gave lot of information that we utilized in the final strategy paper. We have also asked feedback concerning our summer events, people have voted on the extension to our opening hours in our health-center (which day it should be open longer) and much more. The main advantage is that the app is easy to use and makes the engagement quick and fun. You can do it when it suits you the best and answer the questions that interest you the most. One cool feature is that you can also send feedback through the app. So far, the feedback has concerned road maintenance. The information given to us is very useful and we can react to the feedback immediately.
There are no shortcuts in community engagement. It is a long-term effort that needs to be built on trust
We are also sending a lot of information through Kaiku, for example if our music institute has concerts. It is a useful tool in that way too!
Of course Kaiku is not the only way to participate. We still have a lot of workshops, seminars, hearings and meetings where residents can meet the municipal officials and politicians. We also use sometimes different questionnaire-tools,such as Webropol. We also can put the webropol-links to Kaiku and share the questionnaires with the community that way.
One of the disadvantages is that everyone does not have the equipment (smartphone or tablet) to participate and also there are people that don’t have the ability to use digital tools. Sometimes it’s also hard to produce content that is interesting and inspiring to the users. That’s why we also need to have more traditional ways for people to participate.
From your own experience, what words of wisdom would you give to others that are working to build and strengthen their own communities?
I think that there are no shortcuts in community engagement. It is a long-term effort that needs to be built on trust. We as officials need to trust that community engagement can generate new ideas that can support our daily work. We need to be open to new ideas – even when it might be different what we have originally planned. We have to make the community engagement interesting. It has to be open, creative, supportive,innovative and active. It has to mean something.
The residents need to trust that their opinions matter and the municipality’s main function is to provide prosperity for its residents. We are here for them.
There is not one right way to do community engagement, we need to have multiple different tools that help us do better community engagement and tools that complement each other.
For more perspectives on community engagement take a look at our interview with The Swedish People’s Party of Finland and what community engagement means in their context.