How To Commission Good Engagement

17 April 2015

Along with our lovely friends at Mend, we recently brought together commissioners, policy experts and practitioners from the field of engagement to think about barriers and solutions to improve the way in which engagement is commissioned.

Engagement processes are embedded within our practice but there is no shared understanding across the industry as to what good engagement is, why it might be commissioned and some pitfalls to avoid.

We want to tackle this and here is some of the collaborative thinking from our workshops on what good engagement means and overcoming barriers to commissioning it.

WHAT DEFINES GOOD ENGAGEMENT PRACTICE?

Good engagement is a genuinely participatory process, prioritising inclusivity, accessibility and transparency. It has a clear programme with clear objectives, made feasible through sufficient resources and capacity. All involved in the process internally are on the same page, working towards mutually beneficial outcomes for both client and community.

Good engagement practice is open for the expression of diverse views from a representative, unbiased section of the audience. The process has real influence: people engaged feel their views have been listened to and that their involvement has made a difference. To ensure this, good engagement needs to happen early on.

As enablers instead of directors, consultants encourage and empower a genuine sense of community ownership and leadership in both the process and the legacy.

Barriers to good engagement:

There are barriers in the commissioning approach, within the process of engagement and within the community itself.

Obstacles that emerge in commissioning include fear, lack of interest and lack of clarity. Fear of sharing information, disrupting a process, designing by committee, repeating difficult experiences, spending money and the unknown all form barriers stopping good engagement from being commissioned. Lack of interest on the part of the client team stems from a wider lack of value of public engagement and leads to further barriers to the quality of the process, such as commissioning engagement too late and not building in capacity for change and participation. This resulting agenda-based and closed engagement is often known as ‘tick-box’, reflecting the priority of client success. Lack of clarity involves a failure to define parameters for change or influence in the brief, resulting in a confused and poorly executed process.

Key barriers within the process itself involve lack of communication (both internally and externally), inappropriate methods, lack of skills and resources, and a lack of honesty. Obstacles from the community may include a bias user group dominating the process, factions within the audience themselves and a general mistrust in engagement. However, barriers within the process and the community are inherently linked to the effects of those created in the ‘commissioning moment’.

Objectives of good public engagement:

Good public engagement helps improve places and decisions through holistic community involvement, influence and ownership. It entails understanding a place and its community better to ensure responsive, inclusive and successful change.
The process is always contextual, but the positive objective of public engagement will be informed and improved outcomes for all.

How to raise value of community engagement

Everyone needs to demand/expect a high level of quality in engagement. Evidence of the value – including financial – would need to be assessed and shared. Sharing best practice and positive experiences would increase awareness, raise the sense of value and encourage a high standard of commissioning engagement. Potential strategies include:

  • Formulate a charter of best practice to demonstrate value
  • Developer-only events to share best practice case studies
  • Establish engagement champions (professional bodies?)
  • Expand planning requirements to judge the quality of engagement
  • Elevate and promote good clients that believe in commissioning good engagement – reward them and make it competitive so that good engagement becomes a hallmark of being a good developer

What the process of commissioning good engagement might look like:

  • High quality brief-writing skills
  • Getting the whole client and delivery team on the same page
  • Start from an understanding of place and people – make the brief responsive and contextual
  • Embed flexibility, openness and collaboration in the brief
  • Schedule ongoing evaluation – build in capacity for adaptation
  • Decide/anticipate exit strategy – including effective handover from consultant to client and sustainable legacy
  • Be transparent on the purpose and the limits of engagement: define parameters that can accommodate change and influence
  • Commit to engaging a representative diversity of the community
  • Ask for suggestions from consultants
  • Secure sufficient resources and skills
  • Manage negativity early on

Do you agree or disagree? Drop us a line and let us know!

– CG & FP