Deliberative engagement is an approach to community engagement that is becoming increasingly popular. For this we can largely thank academics like Prof Lyn Carson as well as the positive experiences of participants. Some recent recognition for exemplary projects by the IAP2 might also have something to do with it. 2015 Core Value Awards 2016 Core Value Awards
Having designed and facilitated over 30 deliberative panels (think ‘citizens’ juries’, but there are other forms) since 1998, I have seen how well this can work. I love watching panels do the deep dive. It’s great to see them learn and feel better connected with issues and people as a result. I also get a thrill from seeing how the output of deliberative panels really can contribute toward positive, tangible outcomes for the community.
However, there are many more variables to deliberative engagement process than you might think, and it’s vitally important to make sure you invest some time designing the process.
Here are three things that in my experience are essential to get right:
The ‘remit’ is simply the task that the deliberative panel is given to respond to. But it’s surprisingly easy for a remit to be poorly framed and/or not thought through, for example, a remit that is:
· overly narrow, or too broad
· biased (and which therefore generates scepticism)
· something that the sponsors of the process (ultimate decision-makers/governance bodies) are not firmly committed to, or which they don’t fully understand
· something so complex there is not enough time for the panel to deliberate over it in sufficient depth.
I was involved in one project where various interest groups and stakeholders were so divided it took nine months to gain agreement on what the remit should be. Thankfully once we gained agreement the rest of the process ran smoothly. But it could have been a disaster—one that certain parties would no doubt have undermined, and where both the process and the outcome could have been subject to public questioning.
So make sure you get your remit right; give yourself time to frame worthwhile questions for the panel to grapple with, and build broad support for the remit among key stakeholders.
Deliberative processes rely on weighing up evidence. Evidence is brought by panel participants (their own lived experiences) as well as a diverse range of specialists on the topic concerned. But there can be problems if the presentation of evidence is not carefully planned. These are some of the things that can go wrong:
· Bad timing of the panel can result in crucial evidence being missed, simply because a key presenter could be on leave or otherwise unavailable.
· It can be difficult to get the right people to present their evidence. Sometimes it is sufficient to interview people and show a video—but of course they cannot be scrutinised by panel members if they are not available in person at the time.
· Onlookers might consider the evidence as being ‘stacked’ in favour of one preferred outcome. This certainly won’t build trust in the process.
· Sometimes the evidence is not presented in a way which is helpful to the panel. I have seen presenters who are very interesting and entertaining, but not well briefed about their job; they provide lots of information, but it may not actually help the panel to address the remit.
So, start lining up key speakers early before locking in dates for your hearing days.
There have been times in my experience when sponsors have been challenging to work with. Because the panellists are randomly selected, part of the appeal of deliberative processes to sponsors can be that they see them as a way of avoiding, or not engaging with people with strong interests. This is unhelpful and dangerous. Even more dangerous is the hope of some sponsors of using a deliberative panel to get the outcome they most want. It is critical to the process that sponsors be curious and open. There may be some parameters, such as budget limitations and alignment with certain policies, but there needs to be something real at stake that can be influenced by the process.
So, it’s really important to work with sponsors to be genuinely curious and open to the recommendations; and if they are not, it is best not to do a pretend process.
Remit, evidence, sponsors’ intentions: these are just three elements to a successful deliberative design process. Many other things need to be thought through, too—such as:
· the composition of the panel and the recruitment method
· the scheduling of hearings and deliberation, and
· the amount of time for deliberation compared with time for presentations (content delivery).
This November, I’ll be facilitating an intensive, one-day workshop on designing a deliberative engagement process, along with Danielle Annells, as part of Collaboration for Impact’s Innovation in Community Engagement event in Sydney. I’m looking forward to spending a day with many of my highly valued colleagues in the community engagement space to share our experience and learn from each other.
To find out more … click here
Hope to see you there!
I recently spoke to Australia’s National Local Government Newspaper regarding Community Engagement. You can read more about the details below regarding how to maximise the benefits of community engagement.
There are, certainly, challenges for engaging communities effectively. The rewards for getting it right may be more than you imagine.
For local government it is much more than just gaining input to important decisions; it is also about strengthening communities, improving council’s reputation, building trust, and leveraging the many assets within the municipality or city.
During the Integrated Council Plan engagement process at City of Port Phillip a majority of participants were randomly selected to do a ‘deeper dive’ into some critical issues. Council was thrilled with the output and thoughtful advice.
It went beyond this for one participant who said, “This has been amazing. I never go to things like this. Two years ago my sister, who lived with me, died. I also lost my job that year. I have done nothing for the two years since then but stay at home and feel miserable and useless. I have met some lovely people here and I have found out about some ways I can volunteer in St Kilda. I feel like I am part of the human race again!”
Such stories are not unusual. During a very successful ‘Ageing Well’ project in the Shire of Indigo, a group of community champions helped to design the process. One of those champions said, “I usually get involved in telling Council what they should and shouldn’t do; but by being part of many conversations I have learned so much about services and facilities; what Council’s responsibilities and limitations are, and how things are changing. I believe I can now help other people navigate the system and introduce them to people and services.”
It is so important to make space for such possibilities when we design community engagement processes. Engagement is much more than gaining feedback or input; it has the power to transform.
Over the last month, Liz Weaver, Vice President, Tamarack Institute and I have been engaged in an email exchange puzzling out the answers to many wicked questions about collective impact and community change. Below is part I of V, where we discuss how to ensure a community agenda not just a shared agenda.
How do we ensure that it is truly a ‘Community Agenda’ not just the shared agenda of folks around the collective impact (CI) table?
I believe in going in ‘messy.’ Generating conversations with the broader community of interest before a project has a name; before objectives have been written up and before any business case has been developed for funding. The temptation for organisations meeting together to discuss an issue is to scope the project, work out some key messages, make sure organisations are not falling over each other, and to identify resources.
All good reasons to get all the ducks lined up. However, it’s risky. By the time there is a project announced, and key partners identified, it can look like it’s just another government or NGO led project designed to fix a problem. The rationale is then sold. The importance of working together is marketed. From the community’s perspective, they have not yet got their fingerprints over the project. This looks like another thing that will be done for us or to us.
Going in messy means there is genuine intent to frame the project in a way that is meaningful for those who are meant to benefit by, or contribute, to an initiative. Going in messy means the project can be shaped. Every project has to start somewhere. But don’t go too far without knowing your community has had genuine involvement in identifying the purpose, and the key questions to be answered.
What advice do you have Liz?
Being comfortable with the messy, being open to different perspectives allows us to really unpack the problem.
Many collective impact initiatives start as a response to a community need, issue or opportunity of some sort. There are usually two or three people who get together and say, this is not right or this is an opportunity that we can’t miss out on. Their conversation usually leads to other conversations about who we need to connect with whether there is support for at least moving this conversation forward.
Keeping the conversation open at the beginning is challenging. Many of us want to jump to the solution quickly given our area of expertise. But what we have learned is that collective impact issues, problems or opportunities are often very complex. There are multiple players in the system, multiple perspectives and multiple solutions. Being comfortable with the messy, being open to different perspectives allows us to really unpack the problem.
But there will be a time where clarity is required. This is when data disaggregation and community mapping become useful. What is the data telling us about the complexity of the problem and how it is impacting different individuals in our community? Who is already delivering services and how are these services connected? Who cares about this issue and how are they connected?
Approaching complex challenges is tough and messy work. In collective impact approaches, we can’t jump quickly to solutions. We need a tolerance for ambiguity, for learning about how forces are impacting the problem, and then we can bring in tools that help to bring focus and clarity. If we do this well, the issue becomes owned, not only by us, but by the community.
Do you agree with their perspectives? Do you have other questions they should consider? What are the challenges you are facing as you engage in collective impact? We invite you to add your comments and join the conversation here.
Click here to view the publication.
To view subsequent discussions, click on the discussion below: