Nothing could be more important than being genuine when it comes to engagement. People quickly pick up when actions or words lack authenticity. People can see through activities that are undertaken for the sake of fulfilling a process or ticking a box. If people think the process is not genuine, cynicism sets in and they disengage from the process. Engagements that aren’t genuine damage the public’s trust in government and make it harder for others that are engaging with the right intent.
Trust is one of the most important foundations upon which the legitimacy and sustainability of government systems are built. Building and maintaining trusting relationships is vital to the effective functioning of government. As a consequence, this Principle is key to both successful engagement and successful governing.
Being genuine requires:
- Honest intent
- Listening to understand
- People at the centre
- Recognition and celebration
- Closing the feedback loop
The most important element is to be honest about your intent. Be completely clear about your purpose and level of engagement (Principle 1). Are you informing, consulting, involving, collaborating or empowering? Use this terminology and clearly communicate what it means, repeatedly. Repeating and reiterating this regularly will ensure that everybody is clear about your intent. This will ensure that expectations are managed. Sometimes things can change. If this happens be honest about this as well and explain the circumstances and implications.
A key part of managing expectations is to outline from the start what is negotiable and what is not negotiable. The negotiables are elements of your initiative that can be influenced and the non-negotiables are elements that cannot be changed or influenced by the engagement process. This may be due to safety, technical or legislative requirements. Being clear about what elements of the initiative your communities and stakeholders have an opportunity to influence will help manage expectations.
Listening to understand
Genuine engagement means listening to understand. Through active listening, you’ll better understand the community and stakeholders you’re engaging with; you’ll be able to get a handle on their motivations; know what makes them tick; grasp what they recognise as challenges and opportunities; and learn how to effectively engage with them.
Listening in order to understand asks you to step back for a moment, taking time to listen with empathy and gain a better understanding of the state of play in a community. Upon deeper listening you may be surprised by some of the insights you gain and there’s every chance your perspective will shift with your new information.
To make sure that you have heard correctly it is vital that you check back with the people you have engaged with to make sure that you have interpreted what they said correctly. This can be done in different ways (and should be done on multiple occasions). For example, you could type up the discussion from a session and invite the participants to provide feedback, giving them the chance to correct your interpretation or clarify a point. This can (and should) then be done again once a range of stakeholders or members of the community have been heard – summarising the breadth of all feedback received and if possible the government’s initial thinking in response to this.
People at the centre
A successful engagement places people, not the topic or issue, at the centre of the engagement.
At the end of the day, everything we do in the public service should be focused on improving the lives of South Australians and their communities. Government does this by investing time and resources in a range of issues. The issues are diverse and the policy and program responses complex, but whether they are about economic development, environmental protection, reliable health care or excellent education, the final outcomes are for people and so should be shaped by people.
Ensure that your engagement has a high level of accessibility, providing people with appropriate and as many opportunities to participate as possible. This can mean ensuring timeframes for responses are appropriate; that venues (if a physical meeting is being held) are accessible and comfortable; and that people feel welcome and valued.
Accessibility can also be achieved by providing options for participation. Provide people with multiple opportunities to engage in your process. For example, you could hold a community workshop, publish the outcomes for comment on an online discussion forum, promote this work through a social media strategy, and seek broader input through an online survey.
Recognition and celebration
Because engagement is all about people, you need to recognise and celebrate what participants bring to the process. This includes their time, ideas, knowledge, networks and other resources. In doing this you need to acknowledge that people who are participating in your engagement are usually doing so voluntarily. Show your appreciation for this. This can be as straightforward as providing verbal recognition at the close of a meeting, following up with letters of thanks, and then coming back to participants to let them know what you’ve done with the material they provided. This demonstrates that even if you were unable to do anything with their input, you recognise that it’s valuable because time was taken to provide it.
Closing the feedback loop
‘What happened to my idea?’, ‘Did you listen?’, ‘Did you care?’, ‘Did it make a difference?’ These are reasonable questions that participants of an engagement will ask.
The feedback loop is one of the most important elements of the engagement process and without it you cannot show real respect for your participants’ contribution. Closing the feedback loop should happen throughout the engagement, not just at the end.
The concept of the feedback loop can be broken down into three elements:
Remind people what the engagement is about. Restate the context and remind people why the engagement is being carried out. If you asked specific questions or provided materials, provide these again.
Provide people with an overview of what has been said so far. In a small group this might be individual feedback. In a large group or broad community engagement, it could
be a broad overview of what has been said so far, highlighting the key themes and interesting points. It may be useful to provide graphically displayed statistics so people can see where their input ranked in comparison with others’ priorities.
Outline what happened with the community and stakeholder input gained through an engagement and explain why it was or wasn’t used. People will appreciate getting this transparent and honest feedback, even if their ideas and opinions were unable to influence the final outcomes.
Closing the feedback loop demonstrates your genuine commitment to the engagement and will give those involved confidence that their contribution was valued. Completing the feedback loop is a great opportunity to offcially thank people for their input and participation. Those who successfully complete the feedback loop will have a much better chance of re-engaging the communities and/or stakeholders in the future, and you can keep the community as an activated, interested asset, which can be partnered with again and again.