In the current environment of increasing complexity and declining trust, the work of solving public policy problems is getting harder. Likewise, the ability for governments, and the public service who support them, to engage in more meaningful ways with the public is becoming more important as it is one way to navigate complexity and build trust. In this context we offer four tips to hopefully help you public policy solvers to make the most of your next engagement.
At Converlens we are motivated by a desire to help governments, communities and businesses make better decisions by engaging others in more efficient and effective ways.
We have created a range of cutting edge digital tools that make engagement easier and deriving insights from engagement simpler and faster. But it is not all about the tools. There are some simple things that you can do that will make your engagement more effective regardless of the tools you use and we would like to share with you our 4 top tips for better engagement.
Start at the End
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.
No one way of engaging is any better than another
The APS Framework for Engagement outlines four key kinds of engagement undertaken in the Australian Public Service; Information Sharing, Consultation, Deliberation and Collaboration (APS framework for engagement and participation) . No one kind of engagement is better than another; it all depends on the nature of the issues you are dealing with. In fact many initiatives will utilise multiple kinds of engagements.
The important thing is to select the right kind of engagement for the type of problem you are trying to solve. For example, if you only need views and opinions then consultation is a good approach, but if you need to find middle ground on an issue deliberation works best. Of course the selection of the kind of engagement needs to be made in the context of the time and resources at your disposal and your authority.
Is it bigger than a toaster and smaller than a fridge
Understanding the scope and authority you have to engage others is very important. The key decision makers for your project need to be comfortable with the level of engagement you are undertaking and those you are engaging with need to know what is on the table and how much influence they can have. For participants, what is on the table needs to be enough to get them to offer up their time and expertise, bigger than a toaster. For key decision makers you cannot hand over so much authority that you make their role seem redundant, smaller than a fridge.
Time is money
Time and resources can be critical constraints on the kind of engagement that you can deliver. More meaningful forms of engagement do tend to be more time consuming. A good way to look at this is as a return on investment. While more meaningful kinds of engagement such as deliberation and collaboration can take more time and resources, they are also more likely to deliver shared solutions that are owned by stakeholders and the public, and as such are more resilient.
To the extent possible you should try to resist the temptation of undertaking a kind of engagement that does not match well to the problem you are trying to solve because it is faster and cheaper. If you find yourself in a situation where you do not have the time, resources or authority to undertake the most appropriate kind of engagement , look for ways that you can bring elements of the right kind of engagement into the process. For example, you may not have time or authority to undertake a comprehensive deliberative process but you can establish a small group of trusted advisors to assist in guiding you through your process.