You need to know why you’re engaging with communities and stakeholders, and communicate this clearly to your participants. This is not about knowing what the final outcome from your engagement will be, as that will be shaped by what you hear from the communities and stakeholders you engage with.
To know why you are engaging:
- Know your engagement’s purpose
- Understand the public’s level of influence
- Communicate clearly
- Measure your impact
- Plan for flexibility
Know your engagement’s purpose
It’s vital that you have a clear understanding of your engagement’s purpose and can articulate this. The purpose is why you are engaging.
Once you’ve established the purpose you can begin to define the objectives. Your objectives are what you hope to achieve from your engagement.
From the purpose and objectives you can start to identify the participants (Principle 2) and the most appropriate strategies and approaches to support their participation (Principles 5 and 6).
Your initiative doesn’t stand alone. It will occur within a specific context and may be shaped by resource pressures, with different people seeking influence and competing priorities. It will mean different things to different people: some will be passionate about it, while others won’t care. Within this wider context you need to work out what problems or dilemmas you want to solve and how you think this might work. This gives you a starting point from which you can begin to engage stakeholders. Public Value thinking tools such as the Strategic Triangle and Public Value Account may help you work through these questions.
Understand the public’s level of influence
Once you are clear about the purpose and objectives of your engagement you need to be clear about the extent to which your participants and stakeholders can influence the decision or outcome. This will ensure that unrealistic expectations are not raised. The IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum (see break out box to the right) provides a sound framework to help identify the appropriate level of influence.
You should be clear with your participants and stakeholders about their level of influence. Are you seeking to inform them, or consult with them, or collaborate with them?
The strategies and approaches used in your engagement should reflect the participants level of influence. For example, if you know that you can only inform a community, you should develop a sound communication strategy but not seek ideas or input.
The level of influence for participants and stakeholders will vary depending on the engagement’s characteristics and may be different at different stages. For example, you may consult the community on the development of a transport plan (consult) but invite local councils and industry bodies to collaboratively draft the plan (collaborate).
Once you have a good understanding of the purpose, objectives and the public’s level of influence, you need to communicate this both internally and externally.
A good communication strategy allows you to reach out to the intended participants, tell them what’s happening and make it really clear to them how they can get involved.
There is no place for jargon or government-speak in a good engagement process. Work hard to eradicate buzzwords from your communications. Also be aware of the levels of literacy and understanding of your intended audience.
Well-run engagement processes supported by strong communication strategies will assist you in talking with the community and stakeholders about the challenges being faced and what the options for addressing the issue are.
Measure your impact
We engage because we believe it will result in better outcomes, decisions, projects, policies, programs and better or more efficient use of public resources. Establishing engagement objectives, and then measuring your progress, allows you to compare your thinking and practice against the outcomes you seek to achieve. Evaluation can build transparency and accountability if you share the outcomes. It can contribute to the evidence base, identify good engagement practice and improve future practice.
Evaluation allows you to learn what worked and what didn’t. It can also let you know if you’ve used public resources wisely.
Planning for evaluation should commence as early as possible. The scope of activities in the evaluation will vary based on the purpose and scale of the engagement. Early planning enables you to identify the criterion you will use to measure success and the information to be collected to support this, as well as what tools and resources are required. Early evaluation planning also provides an opportunity to clarify the purpose and objectives of the engagement process.
Plan for flexibility
Your engagement design needs to be responsive and flexible so that it can be adapted if your engagement is not achieving its intended purpose and objectives.
If something changes or your early engagement activity highlights a barrier to participation, or identifies a new group of participants or stakeholders that need to be involved, you will need to change your plan and adapt.
A good engagement practitioner will tell you that their engagement designs always change. This (contrary to popular belief) is a good thing – it means that they are constantly watchful and ready to change their approach should circumstances require it.