Let’s have a brief look at some of the language we use.
Engagementworks is in the community engagement business. “Community” in this sense is about collections of people bound together, either by a common place or by a common issue or cause. “Engagement” is about making meaningful connections between groups of people. Joined together, these two words describe strategies and planning programmes designed to connect organisations with affected or interested people in ways that everybody gets value and greater understanding from. A bunch of stuff underpins all of this, not least of which should be an Ears-To-Mouth Ratio of no less than two to one.
Organisations enjoy talking. So too do politicians – to such a degree that underpins what we at Engagementworks refer to as the “Announce and Defend” model of engagement. At best this is simply telling people what is going to happen to them and, that if they don’t like that, they have until a designated date to make their concerns known. In writing. It’s a process often referred to as “consultation”. Under this model there is no guarantee that anything the community says will have an effect on the outcome. This is probably why so few people take the time to make submissions.
At worst this is nothing more than minimum compliance with legislation by those in positions of power. Under this model, communities are usually only accessed, grudgingly, at the end of a process, rather than at the beginning. There are much more effective ways of gaining useful community input that won’t cost much more or take that much longer to do. Overuse of “consultation” probably explains why communities attach strong reliance on referendums or elections, tools that let them derail something that they haven’t been allowed to engage with meaningfully.
Communities are incredibly diverse. With the possible exception of hermits, everybody lives in a community. That could be a community of place, like New Zealand, or Taranaki, or Eltham, or Ladys Mile, depending on how specific the issue in question may be. It could also be a community of interest, like mountain biking, or health, or a business, or conservation, or public transport. The Internet has given power to both types of community but particularly to communities of interest, which can be global in their reach. But how many organisations use the Internet for engagement?
Organisations are great at hiring people who are good at figuring out solutions to problems. Government departments and local government councils are very adept at this. However in some cases there may not be any agreement from a community that there is actually a problem that needs fixing. Communities can get a bit grumpy when a solution comes along that causes them discomfort or inconvenience. In such cases they get even grumpier if it’s their money that is going to be used to provide the solution. Their grumpiness gets even worse if they haven’t had a chance to have a say about either the “problem” or the “solution”.
What would be better would be for organisations to become great at valuing and hiring people who are good at discussing ideas, opportunities and potential problems with the people who are most likely to be affected by those. If communities can’t agree on a problem, there’s a strong chance that there either isn’t one or that it isn’t particularly significant. That sort of feedback can save planners wasting a lot of time.
What about “stakeholders”? “Stakeholders” should be part of any community engagement process. By definition they are people or organisations who have a “stake” in an organisation. Hopefully not a Buffy The Vampire Slayer stake. How their input is weighed against input from community groups will depend on the issue. In some cases distinguishing between stakeholders and community interest groups may be a matter of semantics.
Some people believe that community engagement is just public relations in a different frock. If they do, that’s probably because their views have been formed by seeing PR in a different frock marketed as community engagement. The truth is that PR is, or should be, a sub-set of community engagement, not the other way around. Information exchange is an important part of community engagement, but only a part. Using the Ears-To-Mouth Ratio, delivering information should be less than half of effective engagement. A lot of organisations have a PR or corporate communication team. How many have a community engagement team?
So how should community engagement be monitored to see how well it works? Asking communities is a great place to start. Opinion polling isn’t expensive and can provide a scientifically valid set of results, provided the right questions are asked.
Engagementworks is founded on a belief that community engagement actually works and that by sharing knowledge and experience, people can learn to value it and what it can deliver. Many of the services we can deliver aren’t rocket science. Rather they’re about good principles and processes and valuing those and the benefits they can unlock.
An RFP is a request for proposal, and the DIA is the Department of Internal Affairs. We think we can help them with something, and we’re hopeful that they will agree with us.