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How genuine community engagement can help you manage risk

6 May 2021

News and media


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Community engagement or consultation is used as a public service buzzword, but is too often done poorly, too late, or not at all.

Emma Fletcher, co-CEO of DemocracyCo, a former senior public servant who has become one of Australia’s leading designers of community engagement strategies, says that effective community engagement can be the best risk management tool public servants have.

Mrs Fletcher said the key benefit of doing a proper community consultation process was that it helped public servants recognise, address and manage risk.

“If engagement is done well it can significantly help public servants to reduce risks to their project or policy,” she said.

“If it is done well with stakeholder groups, they will support you when policy gets criticism in the media. If it is done well with the community, you will have a better understanding of the issues, which can help you address those issues in your policy or project and/or manage the politics around them.”

Mrs Fletcher and, along with DemocracyCo’s other co-CEO Emily Jenke, will teach ANZSOG’s new Leading Community Engagement executive workshop in July, a recognition by ANZSOG of the growing use of community engagement by Australian governments and its value in developing better policy.

DemocracyCo uses a range of tools to deliver community engagement and deliberative democratic processes, including citizens juries, focus groups, participatory budgeting, surveys, deliberative polling, deliberative discussion guides and traditional workshops.

She said that the most common mistake agencies made was leaving community engagement until the last minute – after policy development, discussion and other research had been done – and then saying, ‘do we want to put this out and see how people respond’?

“In my experience this is completely the wrong way to go. It is best to do it as early as possible and actually test the problem that you are trying to solve. If you have a discussion about the problem you’ll have more information about the solutions and how they will be received before you decide anything,” she said.

“Some public servants think the community can’t offer any insights that they (as experts) haven’t already thought about – this is blatantly not true. No public servant can see the world from the broad context of their stakeholders and the community. It is also easy to forget that quite often they are relying on stakeholders or the public to help implement the policy effectively – such as with our COVID responses.”

She used the example of issues around dog and cat management in South Australia, where the minister, backed by their department, wanted to implement mandatory desexing.

“We undertook a process that went back to the problem – too many unwanted dogs and cats. By starting from the problem, the participants were able to critically analyse the issues and they decided that government was right – mandatory desexing was needed, but that desexing on its own would not address some of the core causes of abandoned pets, so they made a number of additional recommendations. Based on the recommendations from the public, the government decided to go ahead with desexing, and adopted most of the other measures they proposed to solve the problem.”

Getting the engagement process right

Mrs Fletcher said many public servants and agencies are reluctant to innovate in their use of engagement methodology and that there appears to be limited understanding of what can be achieved through community consultation.

“Most often very little thought is given to designing the engagement process and integrating it into the policy or project development process in clever ways,” she said.

“It is important to put considerable thought into what the objectives for the engagement are, what the objectives of the government are, or of your organisation. The deeper the understanding of your objectives and clarity of articulation, the better the design of the engagement can be.

“Designing an effective and successful community engagement process is no different than designing anything that ‘works’. Form simply has to follow function.”

Another key to a successful consultation process, she said, was for public servants to put themselves in the shoes of the people they wanted to talk to.

“You get more out of the process if you think about the people you are engaging with: who’s interested in, and affected by an issue, what’s their perspective on the world, what sort of experience they have had with consultation in the past and what other issues are impacting on their lives at that moment?

“You might be talking to communities that have been through a disaster, like a bushfire, and you need to think about where they are at emotionally and their ability or willingness to talk to you about the issues you want to talk to them about?

“You need to be thinking or designing in a way that’s not only about your needs but also about theirs.”

She said governments also needed to decide who they needed to hear from on an issue.

“You have to think about whether you only want to hear from people who are passionate about the issue. What about the 60-70 per cent who don’t have a strong view (the quiet Australians), how important are they? The answer to that question will be different each time – and your engagement process will need to change depending on what your answer is.”

She said that while there were some policy areas – such as defence – that were not appropriate for community consultation, the most important thing was to only conduct community engagement when there was a genuine opportunity to influence something.

“There is no point in engaging where there is no opportunity for the community to influence change – if you engage without that opportunity, you end up doing long-term damage,” she said.

She said that in order to maximise the long-term impact of community engagement it was important to bring decision-makers into the process, giving them some input into how the engagement was structured.

“You also need to communicate back what the impact was. Tell the people involved ‘we’ve changed X and Y because of what you told us but we couldn’t change Z for this reason’, so they know that they were not wasting their time.”

Using community engagement to deliver complex reform

Mrs Fletcher said that one of the other reasons for governments to use community engagement was to deliver complex reforms, that could be made more politically achievable through engagement with stakeholders and the community.

In the ACT, the government had long felt that the compulsory third-party insurance (CTP) system did not work for the community. Efforts to change it had been stymied by well-funded campaigns from entrenched interests and the ACT Government decided on a public consultation process using a Citizen’s Jury and stakeholder co-design process to deliver change., To help ensure achievement of reform it announced in advance it would accept and would seek to legislate whatever the jury decided.

After initial consultations with the jury, where they developed their objectives (what they wanted from their CTP system) , four CTP models that would achieve the Jury’s objectives were developed by stakeholders, with support from an actuary and a scheme designer that would achieve the Jury’s objectives. The models were then presented back to the Jury for a final decision – on which one best met their objectives. The model agreed by the Jury was then taken to Parliament and following the normal parliamentary processes (including some amendments), was enacted.

Mrs Fletcher said that while there had been an increase in trust in government due to Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand’s successful responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, this would not be permanent.

“From all the research I’ve read, there is an increase in trust in government, but I think it’ll be fragile and quite temporary. People see government as very competent at the moment and behaving ethically. These elements are core to trust in government. At the moment governments are listening to experts who communicate very well. They were also making decisions that protected people’s immediate health and this is increasing their popularity.”

“In order to rebuild trust in the long term we need to keep ensuring that governments are responsive to people and using better methods of engagement that give citizens input into policy can be part of that.”

“Having said that though, government’s engagement of citizens needs to be aware that there is a nexus in knowledge and understanding and therefore, run processes that seek not only to understand people’s immediate reaction, but their reaction once they are more understanding of the facts and evidence.”

For more information on the Leading community engagement workshop, including how to register, click here.

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