Published on November 29, 2010

Time to get serious about having fun

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.

Involve and Local Government Improvement and Development have recently published ‘Not another Consultation’ -a new guide on informal engagement in the health sector. It outlines practical ways of engaging with local people in ways which are fun and creative.

We worry a lot about the ‘usual suspects’; I’d argue we should worry more about the ‘usual methods’ which we use out of reflex. Public meetings, online consultation documents and other ‘traditional’ methods are useful -in some contexts and for some people. What the document proposes is to broaden the range of tools we use to include approaches which feel more like games than social research.

I think there are three strong reasons for making engagement more fun:

1. Firstly, it’ll help you broaden your participant profile, reaching people who will never come along if the process seems dry and dull. 2. Secondly, people will enjoy the sessions more, so they’re more likely to come back, recommend it to friends and they’ll contribute more creatively. As a result you may get more from the meetings. 3. Finally, these types of events tend to be more enjoyable for the organiser as well.

So if there are so many compelling reasons why don’t more public bodies embrace a more creative and fun approach to consultation and engagement? I think the answer partly lies in organisational culture. ‘Fun’ feels like a very foreign concept in a professional world and so the idea that colourful crayons, funny shaped Post Its and glitter sticks might be legitimate consultation expenses might be met with some resistance.

What I have found is that you can get people who self-identify as ‘serious’ and ‘professional’ to do things that are creative and enjoyable but you need to frame it in the right way. Approaches such as World Cafe (where you draw on the table cloths) and Open Space (where there is no agenda) tend to be resisted by many professionals and doubly so if we use the ‘fluffy’ language which tends to surround these methods. Try selling the ideas of ‘hospitable space’, ‘Native American talking objects’ and ‘whenever it starts is the right time’ (to name a few examples) to sceptical bureaucrats!

Instead I’ve had better results where I’ve focussed on emphasising that these methods have been used repeatedly by big companies (IBM, Shell, Toyota), by big institutions (World Economic Forum, NHS trusts etc) and on the research which shows that more creative approaches are good at enhancing creative solutions.

Of course ‘fun’ isn’t risk free; one of the biggest risks is of seeming insensitive or flippant towards your participants. I’ve seen cases where project staff were very excited about new voting pads and wanted to do a quiz about what people liked about the neighbourhood. Normally that would be a good idea. The problem was the local people were more interested in talking about cuts and their disappointment towards the council and so the quiz came across as a diversionary exercise. It is far easier to do something ‘fun’ around an upbeat topic than it is about something contentious (such as cuts). In these latter cases we might need to settle for ‘respectful’ consultation.

There will be scepticism towards informal engagement; this is after all a new way of working. We need to keep chipping away at the attitude that engagement must be worthy and consultation must be like pulling teeth or else it lack rigour and is not good evidence. Our participants deserve better than this and so do we.

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