At the very end of 2014 and as a prelude to the Leapfrog project we ran a small but very insightful event with some of our stakeholders from the highlands and islands of Scotland. We invited communities, enterprises and support agencies to attend this ‘tadpole’ event and share with us their experiences of public engagement. It was a stimulating and revealing event that set us some good ground rules for our subsequent engagements as part of the project and was enjoyed by our attendees who relished the chance to impart their experiences on us.
The big takeaway from this event was that there are some important aspects of ‘what’ we should do when we perform engagement and equally important aspects of ‘how’ we go about the performance. There is the science and the art of public engagement and both are necessary components that we need to pay close attention to.
Fast forward some months and it was very interesting to attend the Connected Communities conference in Norwich and many of the insights gleaned from our stakeholders being discussed by the attendees of the conference, from both academia and from communities. It seems that there are some consistent dimensions to consultation that emerge in these interactions and it seemed relevant to relay those insights her now.
Motivation: Understanding what inspires people to participate in community projects both at an individual and community level is vital for a successful engagement. Resources and time are required of people to get involved in community projects and this should be respected. Engagement activities need clear aims and outcomes that have meaning for everyone involved.
Language: Jargon and ‘internal’ languages of different stakeholders can isolate people whose opinions would otherwise be garnered, and prevent broad consultation. The language we use both written and verbal should be as plain and simple as possible. For example the language of ‘funding’ is often seen to offer an advantage to those applicants that can speak it fluently, and people’s feeling is that the ability to write a funding bid out weighs its content.
Stories: It was widely acknowledged that it is very easy to undervalue the power of the stories of our experiences. Stories can be inspiring and informative, yet it was recognised that stories sometimes don’t grab people and what is also needed is clear concise information. Capturing the essence of experience and at the same time extracting the most important information for the intended audience should be the aim with any story telling.
Value: Value means different things for different stakeholders and we need to understand and articulate the value for everyone involved in projects, while being realistic and appropriate with what can be achieved. Measuring the social value is seen as an important aim for community projects, an area for development and something to focus on in the future. A simpler notion of value was a strong theme throughout the day. Simply put, we must make consultation worthwhile. That means some appropriate return on investment.
Place: Environment plays a crucial role in public engagement and often it is neutral space that offers the riches ground for good open discussions. It is not only the attributes of physical space that needs our attention when designing interactions. The type of social space will have meaning for people and will invoke certain connotations and rituals and should be part of our consideration. As well as these spaces that exist outside of ourselves there is our inner mental space, preparing the mental space for collaboration, something closely tied to the physical spaces and objects we use in engagement, is a fundamental aspect of consideration for designing good engagement.
While these dimensions are not an exhaustive checklist of the dos and don’ts of consultation, it appears there have been some commonalities between what we have found and what our peers have experienced in their projects. Interactions between two sets of people are not often the same even if the conditions are, as no two sets of people are the same. However we can reflect on our collective experiences and use them to guide our understanding of how we design good consultation.