Published on October 6, 2011

Can engagement be authentic?

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.

Creative Commons, (Attribution Share Alike) Some rights reserved by liako http://www.flickr.com/photos/liako/Edward Andersson asks what authentic engagement looks like, and if it matters.

I recently had the pleasure of spending a lovely weekend in Edmonton working with the Alberta Climate Dialogue; a great project looking to engage citizens around climate change. Over three days researchers, practitioners and others met to discuss new ways of engaging citizens in some of the most complex and difficult policy choices we face in the coming decades. I found it a truly inspiring experience.

One of the attendees Don Iveson, an Edmonton city councillor, shared with us some of his insights as an elected official. I found his modesty refreshing, readily admitting that he doesn’t have a telepathic ability to know what ‘his’ voters want. He also called for more ‘authenticity’ in deliberation and engagement. This prompted me to wonder: is ‘authenticity’ is a useful way of thinking about engagement? It isn’t listed in our 9 principles of deliberation; perhaps it should be?

On some levels ‘authentic’ is a very vague word; but then again so are other terms practitioners habitually use about good engagement (such as ‘genuine’ and ‘meaningful’). So what does an engagement process need to do and be in order to qualify as ‘authentic’ and does it matter?

In many cases the public, media and various interest groups have found deliberative exercises to be inauthentic. Famously two iterations of the Government’s energy review were challenged; once in court and once to the Market Research Standards Board. In both cases the process was found to be flawed. Authenticity matters because citizens are usually very sensitive to suggestions that engagement is manipulative or that they might be lied to.

So at the very least ‘authentic’ engagement must not manipulate participants. However this feels like a very weak test; what are the positive attributes of authenticity?

One yardstick that could be used for measuring how authentic engagement is the degree to which things can change as a result. Ever since Arnstein in 1969 many values driven practitioners have been quick to dismiss processes that engage the public late in the policy making process, on very narrow topics or with limited scope for change. The earlier the better seems to be the mantra.

However this is not as straightforward as it looks. In theory it is easy to argue that the sooner  in the policy making process a process happens the more authentic it is. After all before key decisions have been made citizens have more scope for influence.

However consider the following conundrum: is it better to run a deliberation on the fundamental question of ‘Does man made climate change exist and should we do something about it?’ or a narrower area such as ‘What specific changes to the tax structure should the government adopt to reduce CO2 emissions?’. Which is more authentic? The first one leaves more scope for participants to express their views and doesn’t limit their discussion; however the latter is far more likely to deliver a result that can influence policy directly. Depending on your view either one could be seen to be more authentic.

Even if we can define authenticity we still need to agree who determines if it meets this criteria or not? Is this based on objective criteria, such as Habermaasian principles of deliberation (regardless of the actual impact)? Is it down to participant feelings and perceptions of the process (even if they have unrealistic expectations)? Or is it all down to your intentions (even if you actually ran a terrible process)?

Clearly defining what authentic engagement is constitutes a challenge –perhaps an unsolvable one. I still think it is a valuable conversation to have, as it acknowledges that the success of engagement goes beyond feedback forms and number of participants into the realm of guiding principles and honesty towards the public (and ourselves).

Leave a Reply