Engaging communities at a time of physical distancing presents some real challenges for local government. In an earlier article, I asserted that doing sophisticated engagement online, even deliberative community engagement, is possible. I really believe it, but I am not pretending it is straightforward, nor that it is adequate on its own. It does mean doing things differently though and seizing the opportunities that exist.
Let’s face it, community engagement is never perfect. It is never perfectly representative; the processes are not perfectly supported by organisations, nor is the output perfectly considered. It is always a matter of making trade-offs with our processes, limited by budget, time-frames, and the capacity of communities to be involved. But we have come a long way in the last 20 years. Here are some things that I’ve noticed are much better.
- Organisations no longer consider a once-off public meeting as being an adequate community engagement process.
- There is more effort made to connect with the ‘harder-to-reach’.
- Organisations no longer focus their efforts on just trying to placate those who are well organised and most vocal.
- Organisations provide a broader range of opportunities for communities to be involved; we don’t usually just provide one way to contribute.
- Organisations are generally clearer about genuine parameters and constraints; and open to putting more ‘on the table’ that can be influenced by the process.
- Organisations ask better questions, and scope engagement more thoughtfully.
- We make more space for deliberation to occur, where complexities can be appreciated, and well-informed, considered judgments can be made by a diverse range of participants.
- Organisations are more confident of citizens rising to the occasion, generating great ideas, exercising sound judgment, and being central to building solutions – they view communities as an asset rather than a problem to be solved.
- Organisations make more of an effort to explain how engagement has influenced decision-making, strategies and plans. They close the loop better than before.
We do not want to lose these gains at this time. In fact, I would suggest it is even more important we engage authentically right now. But what are some of the challenges? Here are a few.
- Not all councils have IT systems that allow staff to collaborate in online platforms (such as Google docs, Basecamp and Trello).
- Councils have often invested in one online platform (such as Engagement HG or the Hive) and are reluctant to spend money on different ones. As a result council officers may not be able to offer the range of digital opportunities they’d like.
- Not everyone in the community has access to reliable internet services, or the skills to use digital platforms. Whereas previously support could be provided by library staff, that service is not available right now due to physical distancing restrictions.
- Transitioning existing community engagement processes to digital only engagement is proving to be more time consuming than expected. Practice sessions, revisions to presentation material, negotiating authorisations from IT, and requiring multiple people to be available during video meetings (in case someone has a bandwidth problem), all take time.
My recent experience has shown that worthwhile engagement can still be undertaken. It is important to remind ourselves that people can adapt; we can be creative, we can experiment and we can rise to a challenge. One of the ways to proceed has been to invite stakeholders, community members and project teams to work out the process together. Staying humble and asking; “How can we continue to work on projects that are important to keep progressing? Let’s learn to do something different together. Let’s not aim for a perfect process, just one that we can help us to keep moving in the right direction.”
This asks for a special kind of leadership too, and leaders can be found all over the place. It involves holding the space within which we can work things out together. It certainly means being gracious when things don’t work out as planned – avoiding the blame game, and seeing what we can learn from every experience.
What is evident with this kind of approach and leadership is it is the same kind of approach that works best in a pre and post Covid-19 world too. Let’s make sure we take these kinds of attitudes and mindsets when we have more options available to use for future engagements.