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If they were really listening they’d be listening online too

The integrity of community engagement processes

Matt Crozier
Sep 30, 2013 · 5 min read

Community engagement without integrity achieves nothing

Some years ago I was a consultant to a major infrastructure project in Australia, part of the team which looked after community engagement.

The client’s clear instruction was that we were to empower the community to assist in the choice of route for the project. Note the word ‘empower’. The community were to be presented with the facts and options and to be helped to come up with optimal solutions.

The team designed a process, work-shopping intensively with concerned residents. Implementation went as well as could be expected in an anxious community and by and large left people feeling reassured about our intentions, though some cynicism remained. We went home with lots of data, local information and solutions which had some community ownership.

The next week started with a meeting with the project engineers. They decided to put the community input into a multi-criteria analysis process along with their own concerns about cost, ease of build etc. With the acquiescence of the client, the community inputs were given a derisory weightings and, hey presto, not one of the community ideas got up. The project finished up exactly as the engineers and our clients had always envisaged it.

We were pretty devastated by this, especially when the client blamed us for the negative reaction of the community. Of course the community members were annoyed, they had been lied to and had their time wasted. It was extremely frustrating being put in the position of being one of the people who had delivered the lies.

But it keeps on happening

Sadly, the phenomenon of organizations pretending to ‘empower’ or ‘involve’ the community when they actually want to ‘inform’ them is not a rare occurrence. We see it all too often.

There’s nothing wrong with informing people of a decision already made so long as you are honest about it. Often people respect that, especially if good reasons are given.

But there are also excellent reasons why government entities and companies are encouraged to engage with the community. These reasons are not always altruistic. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that community input leads to better, more robust project outcomes.

Part of the problem here lies in a clash between organizational and community aspirations and the internal culture of ‘expertise’ that infests many professions.

Nowadays ‘experts’ are forced to run ‘consultation processes’ by various statutory instruments or by the policies of their organizations. So what does the ‘expert’ who doesn’t really want to hear from the community do? Well, I guess they’d invite written submissions; hold an ‘open house’ on a couple of evenings which is advertised somewhere on page 56 of the local paper, just next to births, deaths and marriages; summarize all submissions with 2 or 3 words in a spreadsheet and reaffirm their original view. Sound familiar?

The fact that only sectional interest groups will take any notice of their consultation process (because the barriers to participation are so high) just confirms their jaundiced view of the capabilities of the community to contribute.

‘I know best’ is an attitude that the community is faced with on a regular basis. If these people really do know best then what have they to fear from a well run community education and engagement process? I’ve been involved in plenty of such processes where the views of the experts are reaffirmed and strengthened by community backing.

Somewhere they forget that the community are their clients, they forget that the community is an immense repository of knowledge, they forget that their own expertise is fallible. They forget that their policy, strategy, plan or project will have much greater resilience both politically and socially if the community feels it has had a say and been listened to in it’s formulation.

There are no good excuses

An apologist for this sort of approach might leave some comments in the margin at about this point about budgets, timetables, best endeavors etc.

I don’t buy any of it. Especially in an era where the internet makes it so affordable and easy to connect with people and to engage them in a dialogue. Web 2.0 is now so old we’ve stopped saying it. It’s been around for ages.

Surely everyone is aware that it’s possible to have a conversation with the community quickly, easily and at a time convenient to them?

Surely we all know that people in developed nations are (mostly) online? (I cannot even be bothered rehashing the stats).

This is not expensive.It is not difficult, it need not require even a modicum of technical expertise, nor are the results hard to analyze.

There are loads of tools available to discuss, question, tell stories, share ideas and knowledge. You don’t have to have a large IT team or the budget to build something bespoke.

What it does require is a willingness to listen, an open mind and an acceptance that there may be answers other than your own.

So how do we tell if it’s real?

As community members what indicators are there to help us to decipher genuine community engagement processes from professional box ticking?

I suppose we are looking for evidence of listening, evidence of preparedness to go the extra mile in search of community input.

Someone not interested in listening to the community would have little reason to provide the opportunity for online discussion, story telling or questioning. These are all things that make the engagement process easily accessible and ensure that people’s actual views are recorded rather than a facilitator’s near compartmentalized version of those views.

So I’m wondering. When I see decisions that affect people’s lives being made without giving the community the benefit of the opportunity to share their views online. Is this alone an indicator of how much the organization in question cares what the community thinks?

Of course there are levels of online engagement ranging from the piss-poor to the amazing, that’s for discussion another day. Online engagement does not automatically mean integrity either, but it does suggest some effort is being made.

For now I want to suggest, that for any engagement exercise which involves the community at large:

If they are not giving you the chance to engage with them online at some point in the process (preferably throughout), they just don’t care what you think.

Yes it’s a big call, perhaps a huge over simplification. There are plenty of examples out there of government organizations investing heavily in well resourced and run face to face engagement processes. World cafes, charettes, focus groups and other methodologies all have validity and may be able to achieve things that no online process can.

But in what circumstances (in a connected nation) would you not also provide an opportunity to contribute to the process online?

There will be a few examples where engaging online is not the way to go, and some groups are obviously best engaged face to face. But I’m neither calling for an end to face to face engagement nor doubting its efficacy.

What I am suggesting is that those who prefer to be engaged online, who are too busy or immobile to attend an event, should routinely be given access to processes which will affect their lives. When they are not, it’s usually because the engaging organization doesn’t care all that much what they think.

Discuss

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this — if you found it interesting please hit recommend below and tweet a link to get more people involved.

    Matt Crozier

    Written by

    @mattcrozier on Twitter, Co-Founder and Director of BangtheTable.com