Craig Newmark the Founder of Craigslist has a leadership principle that I subscribe to; he claims that often the most important thing an organisation can do is to ‘Get out of the way’. The Craigslist web design encapsulates this, ugly perhaps, but intensely functional. In web design it is easy for ambitious and well-meaning designers to create sites which overcomplicate things.
This principle is one Government would sometimes do well to listen to. I’ve begun to ask myself, if Doctors have their Hippocratic Oath; a principle of doing no harm –should engagement practitioners not have the same?
Because, it’s not just more, but better engagement that we need. Quality counts in engagement. This isn’t a new argument, yet government agencies and authorities often continue to act as if numbers are what matter.
Bums on seats are not the measure of success. If this was the case then the Post Office Closure Consultations should have been a spectacular success, when in fact they probably did a lot of damage to people’s faith in government consultation across the board.
The stakes are high in the coming years; good engagement will be crucial, and bad engagement will be devastating. In my view badly designed engagement is a fantastic way to waste money and turn relationships with stakeholders and citizens sour as an added bonus.
So how do we spot when we are wasting time and money? My experience tells me that the following situations are tell-tale signs of bad engagement:
1. When the answer doesn’t matter –the decision has already been made, the people you are asking can’t have an influence on the matter, or the decision is irrelevant to them.
2. When you already know the answer–it is a technical question with a clear answer, participant comments will add nothing. However, before you stop engaging altogether remind yourself of Rumsfeld’s famous ‘unknown unknowns’. Often the greatest benefit of engagement can be the vital information the public has that you didn’t realise that you needed.
3. When you don’t want to know the answer –engaging under the assumption that you’ll get a particular response or outcome (the one you’ve already decided you want) or, even worse, to convince participants of what you’re proposing is very dangerous and can backfire spectacularly.
4. When the people you are asking don’t know the answer – it can be dangerous to ask people about issues they know little about. In the government spending challenge the suggestions from civil servants were stronger than from members of the public; largely because the former group was in a better position to answer knowledgeably. Citizens can (and should) discuss difficult issues, but they need support and information to do so.
5. When people don’t care what the answer is –Some issues are not ones that people want to engage on. There are other ways of gathering data then engagement and consultation, for example monitoring and straight up research which might be a better use of your money and people’s time.
So in summary, ask questions that matter, of the right people and be honest about what you are willing to change and what is set in stone. Oh, and be prepared to get out of the way if need be.