Recently I was a guest on the newDemocracy Foundation podcast where I shared some of the important lessons that I have learned over the last several decades. Click here to listen to the podcast.
Something we don’t discuss much is the importance of the ‘do no harm’ principle when engaging the community (especially relevant now with the Covid-19 pandemic). Anthony Boxshall and I identified ‘people feeling unsafe’ as one of the key challenges to co-design. We rely on bringing together a diverse community of interest, but what do you do if alternative views are not welcome, or indeed people fear the consequences of participating and expressing unpopular or inconvenient points of view? This can be even more challenging than just ensuring physical distancing at this time.
People do feel unsafe to participate – for a variety of reasons.
Before considering potential tactics to address this, it’s important to understand that fear can be well-founded.
While working in Northern Queensland with agriculture extension service providers, I heard of a farmer who decided to get more serious about sustainable agriculture practices, only to be shunned by other farmers in the district. She became known as the ‘witch on the hill’, and many would no longer talk to her. They believed she left their tribe; a very sceptical tribe when it came to acknowledging climate change impacts, or damage to the Great Barrier Reef their farming practices may have been contributing toward.
On another project, about 7 years ago, which involved exploring options to secure power supply to an inland region, two shop owners decided to support a particular option that others were concerned about. The result was that their township turned on them, to the extent that people would not shop there, and young people were warned not to apply for work there. Ultimately it put them out of business.
On another occasion, I managed to talk a council officer out of his plan to overwhelm opponents of his ‘pet project’. He wanted the council to construct an off-road cycle path from a seaside town to a village in the hills. The only difficulty was that the path would go through several farms, and the farmers had never been spoken to about it. The council officer wanted me to facilitate a large town-hall meeting, because there were several hundred cyclists who would attend, and they would ‘drown out the voices of those farmers’. We ran quite a different process, of course, but this could easily have led to divisive, unpleasant consequences.
There have been other projects where people have been physically threatened. On one occasion, at a public meeting, I attended as an interested citizen (not as the facilitator, for a change), there was a punch-up between two young men who had opposing views. Although not much damage was done physically it had the effect of dissuading community members to continue being involved. It felt scary and polarising.
During a Core Values Renewal process for the International Association for Public Participation, for which I was the process team chairperson in 2008, Australian members proposed an additional core value, one that said something like this:
During a Core Values Renewal process for the International Association for Public Participation, for which I was the process team chairperson in 2008, Australian members proposed an additional core value, one that said something like this: “Public Participation aims to leave a legacy of a stronger and more cohesive community of interest as a result of the process.” I was surprised when we failed to gain the support of the majority of members attending the session, held in Montreal. Members from the USA in particular felt it was going too far (code for, it sounded a bit pink – or socialist!?!?!). I left scratching my head, thinking, ‘surely it is not ok to engage communities and leave them more polarised, feeling less safe, and less confident to be able to shape the world they lived in.’
Of course, many thought such a Core Value had merit, and it is something I know that many community engagement practitioners pay attention to. There are quite a few practical measures to improve safety, though we can probably never guarantee it will always feel safe to be involved. Being involved will change things, and choosing not to participate will also come at a cost, let us not forget that.
Of course, many thought such a Core Value had merit, and it is something I know that many community engagement practitioners pay attention to. There are quite a few practical measures to improve safety, though we can probably never guarantee it will always feel safe to be involved. Being involved will change things; and choosing not to participate will also come at a cost, let us not forget that.
So what can we do to help participants feel safer?
Here are nine tips I have learned along the way.
- Meeting with individuals and small groups on their turf is a good way to start. Learning what they care about and how comfortable they feel mixing with people with different views. This is still possible in a COVID world by arranging a call or video call at people’s places at a time that suits them.
- It’s worth doing some research to consider what has occurred before. Not just reading about it, but also talking to people who have worked with the community previously.
- ‘Dialogue for understanding’, something a colleague Paul Waite specialises in, can be really worthwhile. You can read about this approach here. It’s a process that does not aim to reach agreement, or to see who can win a debate. Dialogue provides a safe space for people to share their view of the world, and to listen to others. Listening for understanding can help prepare people to participate in a co-design process; they may even find they have more in common than they first thought.
- Involving randomly selected participants in a process to work through a controversial issue, can moderate the behaviour of those with more extreme views. It is not uncommon for participants to call out the aggressive behaviour of others if deemed inappropriate.
- As a facilitator I have found it much more useful to encourage the participation of more people than to try to ‘manage’ or ‘control’ those who are trying to monopolise a conversation and behaving aggressively. Focusing attention on how to elevate the participation of all seems to be a more effective way of not giving too much power to the most aggressive participants.
- There are methods that make it safer for people to express their views; digital polling methods, using applications like Poll Everywhere, Menti and Slido, record and display collective results while ensuring individual anonymity. Jason Diceman’s Feedback Frames is another method for making it safe to express feedback on different ideas.
- Using video so people can share their views (their faces can be hidden and voices altered) is another way for people to share views and stories, in a way that doesn’t require them to be in the same physical space with others who disagree.
- We are not more accustomed to using Zoom and other online meeting tools, which can also help people to feel safer. This can also be used in conjunction with digital polling tools, and other programs. It is one of the benefits derived from Covid-19 restrictions.
- Finally co-designing the process with a range of people will help to factor in safety measures. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ process when it comes to community engagement. Working it out together helps to prepare the space where people can deliberate safely, and work toward enduring solutions.
Now it’s your turn. What are your reflections on safety issues related to community engagement, especially co-design processes?
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There is much being said and written about deliberation. This is not surprising, especially in Victoria, Australia, where the new Local Government Act stipulates this is the way to now engage communities. So, I thought I’d make a contribution as a practitioner who has promoted, designed and facilitated deliberative processes for over 20 years. In doing so I am hoping to help local government and other organisations to avoid the trap of limiting their thinking in terms of how to incorporate deliberation into their engagement.
There is a universally agreed definition as to what it actually means when it comes to deliberative community engagement.
I don’t believe there is, but there is broad agreement about principles of deliberative democracy, described by Professor Lyn Carson as inclusion (ie; recruiting an inclusive, stratified mini-public), deliberation (providing a process to assist the mini-public to make a well-considered judgment) and influence (the recommendations of the mini-public need to be genuinely considered and responded to transparently).
Deliberation is meant to enhance decision-making; to make it more democratic, more thoughtful, and less open to manipulation (eg. powerful corporations making political donations expecting favours in return). There is also agreement that deliberative community engagement goes beyond merely harvesting opinions. Collecting opinions by encouraging people to ‘have their say’ is quite different from a cross-section of the public hearing evidence, considering a range of viewpoints and arguments, and working toward agreed recommendations. Deliberation involves people being curious and using critical thinking skills to make well-informed judgments.
The process by which this happens is a different matter. Here are just a few of the areas where there is less agreement:
- Do all participants need to be recruited randomly by a third-party?
- Should the days of evidence be heard on consecutive days, or spread out several weeks apart?
- Is the remit of deliberative panels and agendas set by process experts, by ultimate decision-makers, or panel members, or a combination?
- Do presenters of information stay to observe proceedings, with a right of reply, or do they present their evidence and take no further part?
- Does a panel need to reach consensus, or just a substantial majority, say 80%, to convey valid recommendations?
- Should the panel be no more than 24 members, or is around 45 a better number? Can a panel of 300 people still work in a deliberative way?
- Can people deliberate online, or must it be face to face? (Quite a few practitioners have attempted to facilitate deliberative sessions online in recent months).
- Do all deliberative panels operate at the empower level of the IAP2 Spectrum?
I’ve found deliberative practitioners hold a variety of views about such questions. So, while there is fairly strong agreement about what deliberative community engagement is meant to achieve, there is not so much agreement about what it looks like in practice.
There is only one way to do it.
As you can probably tell from my response to Myth 1, there are many ways that a deliberative community engagement process can be organised. Citizens juries, citizens assemblies, deliberative polls, people’s panels, and deliberative forums, all differ in some respects, but are informed by principles of deliberative democracy (or should be). The illustration below is my attempt at describing a number of variables.
Let’s see how different two deliberative processes might be. The first is Australia’s First Citizens Parliament, held in Old Parliament House, Canberra in February 2009, which I proudly contributed to as one of the lead facilitators, alongside Professor Janette Hartz-Karp.
The scope was a broad, codesign style question, about how Australia’s Democracy could best serve the people of Australia.
In terms of influence, where there was no commitment by government to act on it. It was more of a research exercise to show how deliberation can work, and the extent to which citizens can appreciate complex issues. It was partly funded by the Australian Research Council.
In terms of composition, citizens expressed interest in participating and from there were randomly selected, so that we had one citizen representing each federal electorate.
Regarding duration and scheduling, it was held over 4 consecutive days.
In terms of size we have 151 citizen parliamentarians, one for each Federal electorate.
Process governance? Expert Advisory Committee.
In terms of transparency it was a closed session, so no public gallery, although a team of researchers observed and recorded the process (in fact a book was produced with much of the research results).
Witnesses were selected by the process governance group.
Regarding relationship to broader public, a series of workshops and forums were held to promote the research project, and where people were encouraged to register their interest, so broader engagement fed into this deliberative process.
The response to each variable for Australia’s First Citizens’ Parliament is coloured red, as shown below.
By contrast, and without going through each of the variables, the deliberative process I ran with Anna Kelderman, Shape Urban with the City of Vincent (Perth), to develop a thirty-year vision looked quite different. It was called Imagine Vincent. One noticeable difference was running the process at the Empower end of the Spectrum. It was the community’s Vision being articulated, and Council then responded to it in terms of how Council could support progress toward this Vision. Another variable which differed was the iterative nature of the relationship between the deliberative panel and the broader public. The deliberative panel first worked together to frame questions for the process. After extensive board engagement, the panel reassembled to consider some of the challenges and issues which emerged, and then finalised the vision. Take a look at this video to get an idea about how this worked.
Again, without going through each of the variables, the deliberative process following on from the Hazelwood Mine Fire to design the air monitoring system looks quite different again, as shown below. The main difference with this was the involvement of stakeholders in helping to design the process, scientists working with the panel through the process of codesigning the solution, and the level of influence was at the level of Empower.
(If you are interested in Codesign process you may wish to join our Community of Interest, and receive a free step by step guide).
Phew, the next three will be quite a bit shorter. The key message from all this is that there are many different variables, and there are definitely different ways to do deliberation.
It’s best to get out of the way to let the experts do it for you.
I’ve written about this in a recent blog. I firmly believe the best processes are ones where the consulting team work collaboratively with the organisational project team, and even working collaboratively with some key stakeholders. Co-designing the process is the best way of building support for the process, and making the most of collective knowledge and insights. Don’t let anyone tell you, the client, to get out of the way to let them make all the process decisions.
Deliberative engagement is the only worthwhile type of engagement.
Deliberative engagement is superior in quite a few respects, but other forms of engagement also have value, and sometimes are much more appropriate. Take for instance a project to engage the community in new ways to help prevent suicide. It is not about deliberating over any single decision (although deliberation could be useful to work out how best to allocate resources for a suicide prevention strategy); it is about a movement for system-wide change, to involve as many as possible in the process of being more aware of risks, and groups and organisations working better together to provide support appropriately. It is a different kind of community engagement required for systems change, which I have written about previously.
Of course, it is not about choosing between participative engagement (where large numbers of people being involved is a key objective) or deliberative engagement (where smaller numbers examine a matter at depth). Some of the best processes are ones where the two kinds of engagement work together (such as the Imagine Vincent example). Only doing deliberative community engagement, without any broader engagement, can be criticised for involving too few people to be valid, and depriving people who are keen on the opportunity to contribute.
Deliberative engagement is really, really expensive.
It can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. For complex projects investing in a robust deliberative process, along with other forms of engagement, is likely to be a great investment (especially when compared to the alternative – see Nick Fleming’s article Taming the Flames).
A really inexpensive process that leads to greater mistrust, domination of the process by powerful interest groups, and which does not impress decisionmakers or the broader community, is very costly.
Having said that, it is fair to say that local government cannot afford many deliberative processes run in the form of a classic citizens’ jury. However, a large panel recruited for a longer period of time (say two years) can be used in a very cost-effective way. Smaller groups selected out of the larger group, can be invited to deliberate over different kinds of issues over this period of time. Online deliberation is also more possible; although it might not be the same as face to face session, online tools are being refined all the time toward achieving a greater level of deliberation. Tools like Synthetron, Ethelo and Text, Talk and Act are quite affordable for local government and can take participants on a journey whereby a much higher level of deliberation can be achieved (compared with online discussion forums).
There you go. Five myths and my response to them. In summary, here is my advice about local government doing deliberation:
- Be clear on principles, be open about the methods.
- Work with consultants who are willing to collaborate with you.
- Co-design the process with a diverse range of people, including consultants, internal and external stakeholders.
- Consider how broader engagement can complement, and inform, your deliberative processes (and yes, I believe this can occur in an online environment, though it’s more challenging).
- Trust your community. Be confident that if you make space for community members to deliberate you will be rewarded with their wisdom, your reputation will be enhanced, and you will meet all the requirements of the new Local Government Act (if you operate in Victoria).
So, do you have any other questions, or maybe other myths, relating to deliberative community engagement?
I’ve been consulting for 23 years, and I think I’ve settled on the consulting approach that works for me. When I say ‘approach’ what I mean is how we work with our clients. I’ve reduced it, somewhat simplistically, to three types of approaches.
The first I would term as ‘the contractor’ approach. It is where you do anything to try to please your client. You do as you are told. You jump through hoops in the hope of winning their approval.
I remember one of my first consulting jobs. I was in my mid-thirties, keen to win the approval of my client, and prove myself to the consulting firm who took a chance with me. It was understandable given my age and lack of experience.
One of the interesting things I learned from this approach is how unsettling it was for the client’s project manager. She was very anxious about this controversial infrastructure project. The more I tried to follow her ideas the more anxious she became. The less I trusted my instincts and the less I tried to negotiate an approach, the more in control she should have felt, but I was wrong. It was only in retrospect that her anxiety was due to me not taking a stronger stand, leading her to feel that I couldn’t give her the help she really needed. Having shared this story a few times I know this is not an uncommon experience.
Behaving as a contractor has some drawbacks; one being that is deprives my client what I have to offer. It can make for a harmonious arrangement if my client believes they have all the answers, and they just need someone to carry out their plans. For complex projects (in the Cynefin sense), no one really has the answer. It’s about trying things, exploring and adapting. Behaving as a contractor may not be the best way to help with complex and controversial projects, in my experience.
Now for the second approach. I’m Struggling for a name for it, but let’s call it the uber-expert approach. This is the approach where the consultant basically tells the client to get out of the way, and to let them ‘run the show’. There’s an underlying belief the client needs help, actually needs rescuing. It works well for consultants who have their favoured methods, and recipe for success. All projects are best fitted into their formula. It means there is less need to think things through; and it makes life easier if clients don’t try to make things messier then they need to be.
It’s not uncommon to hear stories of clients who have been frustrated by consultants who do not appreciate their experience, insights and resources. Moreover, organisations who feel ‘done to’, or ‘done for’ often undermine the process and outcomes. I recall my early days doing some effective community engagement, only to find later, I had not engaged the right people in the client organisation. The result – well the community liked me but still didn’t trust the client. The recommendations of the community were ignored, and all I had achieved was to drive a bigger wedge between the community and the organisation I was meant to assist. The Uber-expert approach certainly does not serve organisations or communities when it comes to complex issues.
The third approach, and the one I try to live up to, is the collaborative consultant. This involves bringing the best of what I have to offer, but not at the expense of what my client has to bring. It’s about making the most of our collective resources and wisdom. It is one where we are all curious about learning from each other, learning something new, and being open to new and better ways. In my experience this is the most constructive way of working with clients to tackle complex projects.
For really complex projects it is also important to work with communities and external stakeholders in this way. Co-designing solutions may be the goal, but it’s important to build a solid foundation for that to be possible. Establishing relationships and co-designing the process is both necessary and incredibly useful. The collaborative consulting approach is the one most conducive in my experience.
If you are a consultant which approach has worked best for you?
If you engage consultants what approaches have you encountered and which works best for you?
If co-designing solutions with communities is something you are interested in you may like to join our Authentic Co-design community of interest.
Getting started is often one of the hardest challenges for organisations willing to co-design solutions to complex problems with the community, especially where trust is low.
Let’s consider some of the assumptions behind the reluctance of the community to become involved. For highly controversial projects, such as Murray-Darling Basin Plan, active members, or the hyper-engaged, of the community may assume there is not much to gain by ‘playing nicely’ with authorities, or even community engagement practitioners. For less active members they may assume there is nothing much they can change; feeling defeated already. Getting the ball rolling with the community is an obvious challenge if you are hoping to ultimately co-design a new solution.
So how do you begin building support for such a process? Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way. Firstly, it’s important to recognise it won’t be easy, and you will need to be respectfully persistent.
Secondly, it’s really important to show more interest in listening, than in trying to land your key messages. People will usually choose to start working with you on the basis of whether they believe you ‘give a damn’ about their fears, concerns or aspirations. It is really hard to get anywhere if the community does not believe you do.
Thirdly, there needs to be enough ‘on the table’ to make involvement worthwhile. Being clear on the ‘givens’ or ‘non-negotiables’ is important, but if the things that really matter to people are way out of scope they may rightly believe they have little to gain by playing in the space you are providing.
Lastly, provide opportunities to modify your process and plans based on community feedback, suggestions and ideas. If communities can influence the process they may begin to believe they can shape an outcome, and move to the next stage in the process. What has worked for you in getting the ball rolling when trust in your organisation, or process, is extremely low?
This is just one of the challenges you may face when considering a co-design process for a complex challenge. I will talk about others in coming blogs. There are also internal challenges, which I believe are even more challenging. Read Anthony Boxshall’s recent blog in this regard.
To learn more about co-design follow this link! We, Susan Carter of the Community Studio, Anthony Boxshall, Science into Action and I) have recently developed a brand new course on Authentic Co-Design which may interest you!