Published on July 18, 2011

5 ways to make the case for public 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.

Ruler and papers

In this economic climate, the value of public engagement needs to be articulated in economic terms. Involve’s toolkit demonstrates that you don’t need specialist skills or knowledge to make the business case for engagement.

Today Involve and Consumer Focus launch our long awaited toolkit for how to make the case for engagement using monetary terms. We’ve had over a hundred people email and ask us for copies before the launch and so we hope that it will be well received. Thank you all for waiting so patiently!

Involve started thinking about the costs and benefits of engagement way back in 2005 (Here’s the original report). Back then there was limited interest; people felt there was little need to justify engagement and participation on economic grounds. Things are very different now.  The public sector faces massive cuts across the board. Engagement and consultation are certainly not immune . I know of many posts that have been cut, projects scrapped and organisations that have lost their funding in the field. Making the case for engagement in this environment is difficult. In the past non-monetary benefits were the main arguments for this way of working. Community development workers, youth workers and consultation officers would point out that engagement was good for democracy, good for the self-esteem of the participants and good for social cohesion. Using monetary savings or efficiencies as an argument for a more democratic approach felt wrong. Clearly things have changed. When people are looking high and low for places to cut we cannot shy away from the economic arguments for participation.

The guidebook we launch today is a practical tool for you to make the case for engagement and determine how to measure the value of a project. The document consists of the main report and two excel sheets. One sheet tracks the costs and benefits of a single project and one compares the costs and benefits of two projects with each other.

The toolkit cannot and should not be used to create a false justifcation for projects that do not wokr. What the toolkit allows you to do is to articulate the benefits that you have seen but have lacked the language to speak about in the past.

I’ve had some emails from people who have welcomed the toolkit but worried that it would be difficult and not the toolkit for them. They assume they need specialised education, skills and skills to make this work. I believe that they are wrong and here are my five top tips for how to make the most of the toolkit:

  1. Don’t be daunted. Start with what you have. The toolkit was designed for non-economists. You don’t need to do a course before you start, nor do you need  to gather all data on everything before you begin.  Assess your benefits and costs using existing information you have, identify things you can’t measure yet and start taking steps to fill in the blanks later on. By thinking creatively you can often come up with proxy measures; you don’t always need to carry out new research. Of course it is also important not to make exaggerated claims. Know the limitations of your work and what can be said and what not based on the evidence.
  2. Don’t forget the potential costs of non-engagement. All engagement seems expensive unless the costs of not engaging are measured (or approximated) alongside the costs of your project. In most cases the alternative to public engagement is not ‘do nothing’ but to carry out PR and marketing, limited consultation, market research or other activities – all of which have costs. The comparator excel sheet allows you to make these calculations.
  3. Use the business case to tell stories about why engagement matters. Equations and spreadsheets won’t shift people’s thinking on their own. We are all emotional animals and it is as important to place the data in a compelling narrative as it is to gather the data in the first place. Don’t forget that people are motivated both by opportunities and threats and in the current environment many managers are driven by the latter. If you can point to real cases where no engagement led to real negative impacts (conflict, costs etc) it can be very persuasive and make a convincing case for engagement as a risk management technique in difficult times.
  4. Tailor your argument to fit your audience. Your business case is not an end in itself; it is a tool to get a message across and to convince. Make sure you understand your audience and what is most persuasive to them. Will cost savings over a longer term or budget savings that accrue to different budget-holders be persuasive? Are there non-monetary measures that matter to your decision makers, suhc as health outcomes, an improved reputation or less conflict? Often (even in the midst of cuts) it is not just pounds and pence that matter to people. You need to understand this to make a persuasive case.
  5. Finally, if you really want to persuade peo
    ple, give them the opportunity to see engagement first hand. I have found few things as persuasive as being a firsthand eye witness. A dry report is no substitute for a lived experience. The business case is only part of a wider process of educating colleagues and partners in the merit of engagement.

I’m proud to launch the guide today. Lots of work has gone into it and I hope that many people will use it to make the benefits of engagement clear to all. Let us know if you use it and spread the word to others.

Image used courtesy of Anne Oeldorfhirsche on Flickr

One Response to “5 ways to make the case for public engagement”

  1. June 26, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing the toolkit – really useful and so valuable to ensure hard to reach people have their voices heard.

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