Published on November 12, 2010

Valuing engagement

By Edward Andersson

Edward Andersson is European Associate for Involve and an established expert on methods of participatory decision making. He set up Participationcompass.org – one of Europe’s leading public engagement sites, and has advised a number of organisations on public engagement strategies, including the Home Office, the European Commission, the OECD, WHO Europe, UNDP Turkey and numerous Local Authorities and Health Trusts.

Last week Involve and Sciencewise held a joint workshop on how to measure the costs and benefits of engagement. We brought together around 30 people from a diverse range of organisations with interest in the issue for an afternoon’s discussion.

One of the most interesting discussions of the afternoon was on why different people want to measure the costs and benefits of engagement. Some people at the event were focussed on building a business case for engagement in order to convince sceptical managers and budget holders while others were interested carrying out objective research into what works and building hard evidence into cost-effectiveness. In short, is this research or promotion?

This is a vital question; there is a real danger of confusion and mistrust if the two get mixed up; in the end I think we need both.

On one hand I think we need hard nosed evaluation of engagement. We need to know what works and what doesn’t, especially in a time of unprecedented pressure on the public sector. To except engagement from cuts as a matter of principle is unrealistic. There is a lot of wasteful engagement going on that doesn’t meet the needs of the funders or citizens; if we can find the evidence needed to convince people to stop doing this – then great! However rigorous evaluation won’t be enough on its own.

Full-blown economic evaluation is expensive and time consuming (not to mention skills intensive). A lot of practitioners are delivering worthwhile engagement projects but have only anecdotal evidence to support this. They are unlikely to get resources to do a full academic evaluation. Instead, as the spending review bites, their budgets are likely to be slashed unless they have access to simple tools that help them articulate the costs and benefits of their work to their managers and budget holders. A lot of good work risks getting cut in a false economy, simply because people are unable to explain the benefits in language that managers can relate to.

Maybe we need a two tier system for measuring the costs and benefits of engagement: on the one hand high end, academic controlled studies and trials to build a water tight evidence base, probably limited to a small number of selected significant programmes. On the other hand there will also be a need for very practical tools for practitioners and advocates to build the business case for engagement.

There were many additional key points raised at the workshop and for those who couldn’t make it there is an event report due out soon with a summary of the discussion points.

Involve is also developing a practical framework on measuring costs and benefits with Consumer Focus. The report has not yet been officially launched. Get in touch if you want a copy of either document: Edward@involve.org.uk

If you can’t wait here are some other resources on measuring costs and benefits:

Involve’s 2005 report on costs and benefits of engagement

Making a difference -Involve/Shared Practice Evaluation framework which include aspects of costs and benefits.

Local Government Improvement and Development -Business case tool for community empowerment

CDF -Art of Influence: How to make the case for community development

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