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Citizen participation with governments is crucial... but it's not easy

Empowering citizens to actively participate in government decisions is an effective way to encourage our democracies to prioritise community interests and ensure that governments genuinely serve their constituents.

Many governments are embracing values of transparency and openness, and starting to include citizens in policy design and development, through consultation, deliberation and co-design.

When there is a will, but no obvious way

Even in situations where the need to engage citizens, stakeholders and communities is well understood there can be barriers to overcome. Some decision makers can perceive public engagement to be too costly, time consuming and delivering little value and reduce it to a box to be ticked.

In other situations we want to reach as many people as we can but just do not have the capacity or capability to truly hear and understand what they are telling us - we just can't deal with the data.

For others there is a willingness, but difficulties in finding the right people and engaging in a way that allows them meaningful participation.

Hearing what people have to say is vital if we are to understand what they think and feel ...and that requires inviting contributions in their words

People seated in a room listening to a woman have her say

Encouraging a qualitative exchange can lead to open-ended inquiries and exploration, affording participants the opportunity to express themselves in their own words, rather than constraining them with predefined structures, as seen in typical quantitative-centric approaches.

Open-ended questions have the capacity to elicit responses that are nuanced and culturally relevant to the participant, and potentially unforeseen by the facilitator. Qualitative responses also allow facilitators to delve deeper into participant responses by asking "why" or "how".

Collecting what people say may reduce the structure in your data, but it can increase your insight into the ideas, beliefs and values that motivate your participants.

Typically, when we reach out to our communities, traditional engagement practices encourage questions that are structured, categorical or easily quantified. Questions like “Yes or No?” or “Can you choose from the following options...”.

And the reason for this is simple yet profound in its impact:

It's difficult to deal with unstructured data

Words can present patterns and deep insights, but they lack the comforting structure of categorical data. Dealing with qualitative data (language and words) as an engagement practitioner can be time consuming and costly. So it's no surprise that consultations and engagements tend to err on the side of structured data questions rather than opening the floodgates to what people are really thinking.

And only a small percentage of people end up participating in qualitative rich exchanges such focus groups, interviews and citizens juries.

Embracing a new way to harness the power of what people are saying

Qualitative and quantitative approaches to engagement may differ, but adding a qualitative dimension to research can help expand and deepen understanding when combined with quantitative data.

Converlens has developed methods to collect, manage and analyse the qualitative components of your engagement data and accelerate the process of "getting to insights". By reducing the complexity, cost and time components of engaging with qualitative data, Converlens can unlock deeper consultation potential to better enable you to integrate the voice of your stakeholders into the policy design and decision making process.

Converlens is being used to collect and analyse rich egnagement data for some of the most consequential consultations in Australia. Two prominent examples include:

The Indigenous Voice project

The Indigenous Voice project is a key government initiative into the role and say of Indigenous Australians to government. Converlens worked with the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) to collect multiple rounds of feedback for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, assisting with key capability development to support the analysis and reporting for the project.

Developing Australia's Space Industry

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources adopted an inquiry into developing Australia's space industry. Converlens was used to analyse both the qualitative and quantitative data collected, ultimately informing ongoing effort to form Australia's Space Industry strategy and roadmap.

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