What happens when you think about designing community engagement the way you approach a first date? What would change?
My colleague, and long-time Systems Change practitioner, Sue Goss posed this question recently when a group of us got together to think about engagement and systems leadership. The question immediately spawned a plethora of satisfying dating / attending engagement events analogies;
- You’re only going along with it because your friend put you up to it – they said it would be good for you.
- You might be a bit hesitant at first, suspicious about motives, and commitment.
- You don’t have the energy to bother – you’ve been here before and nothing good came of it last time around; or, more positively –
- This one seems different! Actually in line with your values, and your outlook on life, and you really hope you won’t be disappointed!
- You think you know what you want, and then you go along and find out you don’t want what you think you did…
and so on…
The question Sue asked, however, is focused on the design of engagement, and that, we found, is where the lessons lie.
Usually when we, as people who design community engagement, invite people to engage in a process it’s all on our terms. We state the day, the time, the location, the venue. We choose whether there will be food or drink, and what those are. We decide the subject matter and prepare an agenda – sometimes even a structure that plans out conversations to the minute.
If we were contemplating going on a first date and that was the approach of the person who was inviting us – how would we feel? We’d probably feel that the person inviting us wasn’t interested in what we wanted at all. We might feel frustrated, managed – and maybe even unsafe.
What we would probably want instead is to be asked what we would like to do, and where we would like to go. We might like the person to have suggestions, but we might also like to be able to make some of our own. We’d like to reach a conclusion together, and come to an agreement on something that we know we both feel good about.
Considering engagement design in this way, these might be some of the things we’d change:
- We’d involve people earlier in the process. Instead of only reaching out when our plans are set and we feel organised and ready to go, we’ll bring people into the design process. We’ll ask for advice about where to hold events, and what the best format might be.
- We’d recognise that everyone is different. We won’t just put on the same style of event and process multiple times, we’ll ensure there are a variety of entry points, and a variety of experiences on offer.
- We won’t plan the subject matter as much. We’d recognise that our agenda is not everyone’s agenda, and people may bring things to talk about that need to be shared and listened to – so we would make space for those.
There are a variety of ways of enabling these changes to happen. Working with steering groups and reference groups in the defining, procuring, and designing of engagement can help us make sure that an engagement programme is informed by and tailored to the people who will later be involved. Using mixed methods approaches supports not only people who have different communications needs, but also those with varying levels of interest in and time to commit to engaging. Flexible, open, or partially open design (for example drawing on World Café, Open Space Technology, or Unconferencing methods) means that people can bring their own ideas and discussion topics to events and not feel forced to contribute on just a single subject matter.
Very often, community engagement is driven by a need for certain outcomes. However, as the growing movement for a human, learning, and systems (HLS) approach to funding, commissioning, and managing thoroughly articulates in Exploring the New World, real change isn’t achieved through siloed, target-driven delivery. Rather, establishing relational practice, where people’s complexities and differences are acknowledged, and positive relationships are the goal and not just ‘nice-to-have’ is key to supporting positive outcomes in complex environments. Wherever possible, we need to stop thinking about engagement as projects to be delivered, but rather as people to spend time with.