Decisions are made by those who turn up.
Often, those looking to engage people in decision making and shaping services make the shaky leap from the fact that over 70% of people have internet access, to the idea that the internet offers the straightforward opportunity to engage 70% of the people. A few days ago, frustrated by questions driven by this logic, and of the form ‘How many people in our local area are on Twitter?’, Dave Briggs sought to explode ‘The myth of engaging with everyone‘. Dave asks for clarity stating:
The first thing to be clear on is that no one engagement method will reach, or suit, everyone.
The second thing to be clear on, is that you don’t necessarily want to reach everyone, anyway.
Two statements that seem empirically and intuitively sensible. But the argument they lead Dave to is not necessarily so uncontroversial:
My argument would always be to focus on the small number of active, enthusiastic people first.
Whilst there are a limited number of cases where putting the primary focus on the active, enthusiastic people is the right way forward, in local authorities, national government and other democratic contexts we need to think more carefully. The ‘active, enthusiasts’ who leap upon any opportunity to get involved may well be great & capable people – but they may well not have all the ideas, insights, experiences and networks that we need for innovation, change, and the development of engaged vibrant communities. The following post is not a call to reject the active enthusiasts, engaged online and willing to make considerable contributions to civic life – but it is a call to remember that, if decisions are made by those who turn up, those planning and facilitating engagement have a responsibility to make sure they are inviting and supporting the right individuals and groups to be part of the process.
So, who should turn up? Below I’ve sketched out three steps to thinking about who you need to engage, and how to manage that engagement.
This is a quick sketch – and I’m sure the ideas it explores have been well developed elsewhere – so I welcome comments / pointers and reflections to help shape and develop this more…
1) Start from the end
You can’t start planning an engagement process without thinking about why you are looking to engage people. Why you are thinking about engagement, will determine who needs to be engaged, and how.
Some useful questions to ask yourself about the outcomes you want:
- Are we looking to make a decision at the end of this process? If so:
- Does the decision need to be decided by a democratic process? Or does it otherwise need some democratic legitimacy?
- Do we already have a mandate or responsibility for making this decision?
- Is the goal to make a particular project happen where we already know what that project is?
- Is the goal to take action on a particular issue, but without already knowing what action to take?
- Is the goal to build a community who can take forward projects and action in future?
And then ask about the sort of input you need. Do you want:
- People taking action?
The reality is that most engagement projects involve multiple possible outcomes, and multiple sorts of input.
For example, you may want to initially get a wide range of ideas about the priorities that should be set for a £100k pot of local funding; to follow this up with a democratically legitimate vote to discover the top local priorities; to put together a panel who will invite local groups to apply for funding to run innovative projects that match up against the chosen priorities; and to decide who gets the funding and to support them in running projects and making an impact. Each stage of the process answers the questions above in different ways – and so will need to think differently about who to engage and how…
2) Think about who is affected & who should be involved
If you want to engage a local population – you could just put an engagement opportunity up online, and let the people who are interested find out. But, as Mark Pack points out in a comment on Dave’s blog post:
often those keenest on an issue have a different view from those less keen on the issue
Those who self-select to get involved in an engagement opportunity may not represent all the people who should be involved in an engagement opportunity. Of course, who should be involved depends on the sorts of answers you gave to the questions above.
If you want to get the best possible democratically legitimate outcome that respects the independence and self-determination of local communities then you need at least two broad groups of people involved:
- (a) People with expertise on the issues in consideration;
- (b) People who will be affected by decisions or actions that result from this process;
You could just work with a tick-list consisting of these two items, and check you have people from both categories taking part – but chances are that breaking down category (b) at least is going to prove useful for targeting engagement opportunities and making sure you get beyond the easy-to-reach enthusiasts.
For example, you may decide you need to hear from:
- Men & women, of a range of ages and employment situations, who live in different wards where your funding of £100k might be spent.
You may find you can generate a matrix from the lists of different group you want to engage – giving you a tool to check and think about who is engaged so far. For example, the matrix below helps get a rough sense of whether a process is hearing from participants across areas of Oxford, and from a range of age groups and employment backgrounds.
It’s important to note, however, that these are not tick-boxes. You may not necessarily have someone from every category. These lists are tools to help you think about and visualise whether or not you are getting a broad range of inputs into your engagement process.
Engaging some groups is easier than others. Although – as I heard it put at the recent Beyond Twitter conference, that’s not because some groups are ‘hard to reach’, but because from some places in your local area, the council is harder to reach. With a matrix like the above, you can think about where you put your resources, and how accessible the engagement you are creating is to different groups.
3) Think about the sorts of input you allow, and the inputs you are getting
The people you engage are not, unless they have been elected through a suitable process, representatives . Nor, unless you’ve gone through some in-depth statistical sampling, are they representative.
But they do bring something to your process. And knowing what they bring is important to ensure the outcome is as high quality and legitimate as possible.
People bring ideas, insights, lived experience, energy to take action, skills and practice know how and a whole lot more. Sometimes people should be allowed to bring a veto; or to call for a vote on particular issues.
Fascilitating engagement involves looking at these different sorts of input, and getting the right balance at the right time.
For example, you may first gather stories from across an area about what living there is like, and share these stories with the ‘active enthusiasts’ who have time and energy to give in thinking about innovative funding priorities that could respond to those stories. You may invite those affected by decisions about funding to reflect upon the ‘active enthusiasts’ suggestions. You may offer a veto power to local community members. You may seek out the views of specific groups to make sure a decision is well rounded. And you may seek to bring together a large group to vote on proposals. If all the stories and insights come from one group; all the ideas from another; and all the action from another group again – then the risk that your process is unbalanced is big.
Many people have had bad experiences of engagement in the past. Some people are not interested in being engaged. Many people face barriers to getting engaged. You can’t engage with everyone all the time.
But whatever you do, look beyond the easy and obvious, to seek approaches that will work, and that will push forward are more just society.
Why engage online?
Where does this leave the argument for online engagement that Dave Briggs was exploring in the post that sparked the exploration above? Well, one avenue worth exploring is how digital technologies can lower the costs of engaging the easy-to-engage, to free up resources to offer substantive support to those groups, who for reasons of structural and systematic disadvantage, may find their input less likely to be otherwise included.