The myth of easy engagement. Who should participate and how…

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:

  • Ideas?
  • Insights?
  • Expertise?
  • Innovation?
  • People taking action?
  • Voting?
  • etc.

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.

Picture 7

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.

Engaging everyone

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.

19 thoughts on “The myth of easy engagement. Who should participate and how…”

  1. Your method just sounds like the digital britain plan, and it has ended up the way you described!”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.”

    I think I prefer Dave’s version to yours.

    My version would be JFDI. If you build the houses the people will come.


  2. Hi Tim

    Thanks for taking the time to respond so fully. I haven’t digested everything you’ve written, but before I respond properly, a quick clarification on what I meant by focusing on the enthusiastic:

    a) The majority of people don’t want to engage with government. They never have, and never will and new mediums won’t change it. It’s a shame, but something everyone needs to acknowledge. An awful lot of people just don’t care – and you can’t force them to. I think it was Simon Dickson who pointed out in the comments in my post that a bit of Hansard Society research showed that 55% of people don’t want to be involved in national decision making. I suspect that % would be lower for local issues, but I dare say not much.

    b) By ‘the enthusiastic’ I don’t mean ‘the usual suspects’. You might not know when starting out who those people who will react positively will be. But you must try and find out who they might be, and once you identify them, make the most out of them.

    Also, of course, my post was a throwaway type of thing bashed out on the train, and nowhere near as well thought through as yours above!

    I think the general point I was trying to make was that a lot of people expect digital to provide a holy grail of mass participation, which it won’t, for a while at least.

  3. @cyberdoyle

    My case is that you should avoid an unbalanced approach – but that good facilitation is about integrating the inputs of different groups – and ensuring a spread of people are involved in every stage of the process.

    A JFDI approach has the very big risk that those who JFDI are not those affected by the outcome. Or are only a very small group with a limited set of experiences and agendas.

    The argument above is about complementing JFDI with a sensitivity to social justice – to ensuring structural and systematic injustices which mean some people have more resources and capacity to JFDI doesn’t mean those people get to make all the decisions and shape reality to fit with their interests and understanding of what the problem is.

    I realise that the proposals above for ‘engagement’ risk being ‘structure heavy’ – but I offer then as a set of things to consider in creative engagement practice – rather than as a ‘process’ to be followed to the letter.

    The alternative to ‘engagement’ – which I believe is equally, if not more, important, is community development – working to directly address the injustices in society by equipping, resourcing and supporting the people most affected by an issue to JFDI.

  4. @dave

    Thanks for the feedback – and I should apologise for any miss-characterisation of your post implied by the fact I’ve developed a line of argument sparked by reading your post – but not intended to be a criticism of critique of it.

    I think the key point you make: digital is not a holy grail – is right.

    And I’d also agree that the active enthusiasts you can engage online are often not the ‘usual suspects’. In part, what I’ve started to explore above is how we should value the ‘usual suspects’ or those who start as active enthusiasts but perhaps become ‘usual suspects’, whilst making sure we think carefully about who else needs to be involved for us to get the best outcomes…

    There is a very interesting tension that @cyberdoyles comment points to between getting bogged down in process to engage people who don’t want to be engaged, and just getting on with something. I admit a tension in my proposal above is that it could, set up wrong, risk holding back some enthusiastic action.

    Sometimes, when a decision needs to be democratic, and action that runs ahead of collective decision making could lead to a worse overall, or at least, a profoundly undemocratic outcome, then holding back JFDI would be right. In most cases, however, the important thing is to set up the process to support those taking action and running forward with a project – giving time and effort to it – to have the insights and ideas of a wider group.

    Last quick comment on the 55% figure. In that 55% there will be people who:
    – Just can’t be bothered to get involved;
    – Have been involved before, but had a bad experience of it;
    – People who don’t believe they can make any difference;
    – People who get to the end of a 14 hour day, working two jobs to make ends meet, and cook for the kids and look after an elderly family member, and who, at the end of all that – just don’t have time or energy to engage;

    To make good policy, and to build strong communities – we still need to hear from some of those 55%.

  5. Sure thing. I’ll see if I can work the above into some sort of operational tool to road test on a few projects over the next few months (as I’m aware I’m not actually putting it into practice on everything I’m working on…)

  6. I find it hard to make sense of this – it’s very general to talk of ‘engagement’ – for a start what does that mean? Getting people’s attention/awareness/interest/involvement? Do people have to be equally ‘engaged’ or do they just need to be made contact with and then it’s accepted that some will be involved more so than others?

    I think every situation has a different need, just as different groups of people have different sets of needs and if you’re genuine about trying to engage different people it’s up to you to consider what are the most appropriate methods for each of them. Dave’s very right though to make the point digital is not the holy grail – it’s just another tool in the box.

    In terms of online engagement it’s extremely difficult to know who is discriminated against in terms of being able to use online methods well – just because people have access doesn’t mean they have competence or time (or don’t suffer a crappy BT line!) and whereas in a face to face meeting you might pick up on peoples individual needs how do you accommodate that through online mediums? Online discussions for example can often be very harsh and very very often use a lot of jargon.

    Also I think the gap between those who are active online and those who are not, is huge – really huge – much much bigger than it is through other mediums. For lots of things that might not matter – it depends on what your subject is – but for example debates about digital inclusion that have an online focus seem very shallow – those are debates that really need to be happening in the main part offline aren’t they?!

    As for the first comment much as I admire the just get it done approach – the concept of building houses & people will come is naive, certainly where local government is concerned.

  7. @mas

    Quick clarifications.

    1) My focus is engagement in general – not specifically digital. I only return to digital after the last heading.

    2) By engagement I’m referring to any process which involves a decision or an activity (e.g. setting up a new project); and where there is a desire to involve people other than the staff employed or officials elected, to make that decision/project happen.

    And additional extensions/points/replies:

    If online is a tool in the toolbox, then it has to fit within a broader strategy.

    There is no requirement for people to be ‘equally engaged’, different people play different roles in any process. But there is a need to be //attentive// to how engaged different groups are and what roles they are playing.

    In terms of accommodating different groups in online space – I agree that it’s a tricky process and we need to continue to develop skills to do it well.

  8. Mas, I know it is naive as far as local gov is concerned, i just wanted to keep it brief and not go into one of my rants…
    …if government truly engaged, that is the house. If they were seen to respond in any medium the people would move into the house. At the moment this isn’t possible digitally because half the country have crap access to broadband. Another house that needs building-the antiquated copper telephone system needs fibre to the home of everyone. But that’s another rant for another poor bloggers comment box. 😉

  9. I’m enjoying this discussion, but to me, the post end rather abruptly. What else can the need to balance engagement but focus our efforts (what us marketing folk would think of as segmentation, I guess) teach us about the potential for digital forms of engagement?

    Sure, we can save some of the total budget by covering off the digitally-enabled and enthusiastic, to spare more of it to spend reaching the harder to reach.

    But are there new forms of engagement possible through digital means? Do the tools, and ability to tell stories and make points using your own and other people’s video or images, or using platforms such as blogging or wiki-style collaboration add something extra? And does some of this in itself change the dynamics of the engagement and willingness of some participants to engage (you know the kind of thing: young people+mobile phone cameras+vlogging+brief to tell the story of their area etc)

    And by mixing asynchronously the kind of people who should talk but don’t (like the example of the online discussion about parking zones, which took place between me, my next door neighbour and a local councillor on a Ning site someone two streets away set up), can online overcome other barriers in new ways?

    You’re a deeper thinker on these kinds of things than me – what other avenues should be exploring to follow up your last paragraph?

  10. @steph A good challenge – and definitely one I’ll try and take up in a blog post soon.

    You are right to point out that digital, and particularly online-offline blended digital (i.e. using digital in physical space as well as virtual space, and using digital to link up to people in your own locality, as well as people in different areas) offers a whole host of new forms of engagement. Which in turn opens up a new set of possible outcomes from engagement processes.

  11. Steph: the pessimistic follow up to your comment is that many of these new tools can make the situation worse. That’s because the more tools that are available, the bigger the gap there can be between the vocal (who can comment, blog, podcast etc.) and the quiet – who can be even more overawed and silenced by all this other commentary going on.

    Perhaps the tools will (more optimistically!) tackle rather than increase such difference in future, but overall I think this is a question so far we know little about.

  12. The tools are simple enough to master if the connection is good. It is when the connection is slow and or ropey that people get frustrated and give up. Granted there is a period where people have to try out the tools to find the right ones for them, and education and engagement enables this to happen, but it can’t happen until broadband is boring. At the moment it takes every bit of skill you and your friends/family/neighbours have to get a connection that actually works. Until everyone has a fast enough fat enough pipe to the ether we are all banging our heads against a brick wall.
    We are putting the cart before the ‘orse. Or it may be a case of the tail wagging the dog…

  13. @Tim understood & agreed

    @Cyberdoyle – that’s the nail on the head! Wasn’t there a country recently making it into a legal right for all citizens to have a broadband connection? I think it was Finland or maybe Norway (not sure though)

    @Steph I like the thinking of using online/digital towards breaking down barriers for those offline – and by that I mean acceptance that some may not want to use online but exploring ways they can still benefit from what happens online – it reminds me of an idea I think Tim had in the past about making rss feeds available as community newsletters

  14. Some of interesting comments. Is it about the medium or do we need more emphasis on the content (and its transferability).
    Trying to get engaged, honest… but I often feel a bit like Im listening to a conversation at a computer science or similar department party.

  15. Martin – I know what you mean, and that is why digital has to be boring. At the moment it is complicated, connection is often difficult to get, computers can play up, the whole thing is in its infancy as far as joe public is concerned. The recently educated and the early adopters are ok, but to engage new people to what is essentially a basic utility these days we have to keep everything as simple as possible. That means ubiquitous access comes first, then we can use the tools. Many people mess up their computers trying to get a connection to work! These days modern computers are a lot simpler. More people try to get ‘engaged’ but fail at the first hurdle. Once connection is as simple as turning on a tap or flicking a switch we have cracked it. They will engage. Until then we have our work cut out. But IT will happen. IT would happen a lot sooner if someone sorted the telcos out and stopped believing their excuses and porkies.
    Contention ratios in exchanges are far too high, and many people are only getting a dribble out of the tap. They then think it is their computer or their skills to blame, and they give up. I have helped hundreds or maybe even thousands of people (community volunteer) so I do know this is true.

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