Published on September 9, 2016

How to get engagement wrong in one easy step

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

There are so many examples of exciting and successful public engagement processes, for example:

These are a vindication of the work of organisations like Involve. In spite of common perceptions that the public are somehow incapable of dealing with complex and controversial issues, these success stories demonstrate that the public are able to provide nuanced input that supports better decision making, and leads to better outcomes for citizens, communities, and indeed policy makers.

However, we find that highlighting success can have the unintended consequence of focusing minds on method to the exclusion of what is really important to consider when commissioning engagement processes.

This is such a problem that I still find myself wheeling out a presentation that I wrote when I first arrived at Involve over seven years ago (and which draws on an even older Involve publication).

This presentation makes a single key point which is fleshed out with our experience of working with senior policy makers who are grappling with how to engage the public on complex and controversial issues.

While it’s obviously adapted depending on the circumstances, the presentation goes something like this.

Slide 2

You can’t pick a method for engaging the public just because you’ve heard that it works well, or you’ve seen it work well in the past, and hope that you will get the outcome you want. Focusing on method means you can’t possibly achieve the outcome you want, in fact, it means you aren’t even thinking about the outcome you want.

If you do start from method, you mustn’t be surprised if you find it hard to accept the message that the public give you when you invite them to engage with you.

Your first step in designing an effective public engagement process starts somewhere else.

Slide 3

This simple equation provides the simple set of steps you need to follow to develop an effective engagement process or strategy.

It’s obvious if you take a moment to think about it, but start by developing a clear understanding of why you are engaging the public. What is the decision you are trying to take? What can the public tell you (or do) that no-one else in the system can? In other words, what is the purpose of the engagement?

Next, what is the context in which you will be engaging? What engagement have you done already? What is your relationship like with the outside world? What’s changed since the last time you actively asked the public a set of questions?

It’s at this point that you realise that this isn’t a linear equation with a simple set of additive steps that will get you to the right answer. Instead, it is iterative; the answer to each question is likely to force you to go back and tighten, or even change, the answer to previous questions.

Next, who do I need to engage? Who has the networks who can help you engage widely and diversely? Who might be interested and affected by the decisions I’m taking? Who has the information you identified that you need in the first question?

Finally, and only at this point can you ask, which method is best suited to these circumstances? Your choice will be dictated by your answers to the previous questions, but tempered by your budget, the timescale and so on. My colleague Sarah Allan has recently written a post about some of the more detailed questions that flow out of this.

In our experience it is only by going through this process that you stand a chance of understanding what outcome it is you want and therefore of achieving it.

Slide 4

Understanding your purpose can be challenging. We sometimes find it helpful to think through the factors affecting the decision of public bodies to engage with the public. Broadly we find one or two of the following factors underlie this decision and therefore influence the purpose of the engagement itself:

  • Governance: purpose – to develop more democratic legitimacy, increase public trust, or promote active democratic citizenship;
  • Social cohesion and social justice: purpose – to promote better community relations, increase social capital, or put power in the hands of communities and individuals;
  • Improved services: purpose – to create more efficient and effective services that meet real needs and reflect community values;
  • Capacity building and learning: purpose – to build individual and community confidence and skills;
  • Greater ownership: purpose – to support community buy-in to policies, services and service delivery; and/ or
  • Legal and regulatory structures: purpose – to meet statutory and regulatory obligations to consult and engage the public.

These are not exclusive, and it is possible and indeed probable, that an organisation will be responding to more than one of these factors. The important thing is that the organisation is honest about what is motivating them to engage in the first place. Our experience is that leaving this understanding implicit and hidden always leads to ineffective engagement and a reduction of public trust in the organisation engaging.

Slide 5

The reason for having complete clarity about why you are asking the public to spend time and effort engaging with you becomes clear when you think about the moment that the organisation, or more accurately the senior people in the organisation, has to take a decision. At this point officials will have collated and summarised the evidence that’s been collected. This could range from the highly quantitative, all the way through to the personal prejudice and background of the person ultimately responsible.

At the same time, a range of active stakeholders will have made their views (often forcefully) clear.

Unless the organisation is absolutely clear why it has invited to the public to engage and offer their views, it will be impossible to take them into account amidst the welter of competing evidence, perspectives and political pressure. The end result will be that the public will get lost as the final decision is taken.

Slide 6

Recognising all of this highlights the critical role that senior leaders have in creating and holding open spaces for difficult conversations. These need to be spaces that anyone with an interest is able to join and contribute to. However, if leaders genuinely want to hear from the public then they will need to motivate them. This is only possible if the purpose of the engagement is absolutely clear internally, and therefore externally.

As the previous slide shows, there will be plenty of noise and input from highly motivated stakeholders. Having clarity of purpose will also help organisations to keep spaces open for the wider public, even if some stakeholders try to dominate the process.

This model, way of thinking and set of questions is one that we often find useful as we support organisations to develop engagement strategies, or develop specific engagement processes around complex, controversial public policies.

If you’d like more information about the support we can offer, contact me at simon[at]involve.org.uk.

 

* for a much longer list of methods and successful examples visit: www.participationcompass.org.

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