How to design engagement


If you want to consult or engage more deeply with a local community, or range of interests, there's no shortage of methods recommended for use by facilitators and their clients. You may think about focus groups, workshops or roadshows backed up by newsletters and other documents. Fairs can offer fun, citizens' juries foster deliberation. Then there's all the more recent web-based processes.

The problem is which method to choose, how long to take, how to ensure you can respond to people's preferences ... in short you need to design a process. While a professional facilitator may know this well, it can be difficult to convince a public agency, for example, that it's more than a matter of choosing a tool and applying it.

I'm delighted to see that engagement specialists Dialogue by Design have now produced not only a free handbook on designing engagement processes, but also a dialoguedesigner. This online system helps you choose the right method for the right situation by asking four simple questions:

  • what you want to achieve;
  • who you want to consult with;
  • how sensitive the subject matter or relationship is; and
  • how much time you have to run the consultation.

Once you have provided answers to these questions you are offered a range of possible methods, with links to detailed explanations. I like the way that the system provides gentle rebukes if you don't take engagement seriously enough. For example, if you choose "gather views or opinions" as an objective, you are told:

While gathering views and opinions from people is often an important part of a consultation process it is not, on its own, consultation. If you really only want to gather views and opinions your project is a market research or opinion polling exercise. See the supporting information link for more information on these and some of the methods most commonly used.

The rationale behind this is explained in the handbook, which offer the spectrum of engagement (information giving, information gathering, consultation, participation, collaboration, delegated authority) as a model for thinking about the degree of influence.

In the foreword, Andrew Acland - who is co-director of Dialogue by Design with Pippa Hyam - reflects on the lack of emphasis on design elsewhere.

We think it is because people tend to choose their engagement method first and then fit the process to the method rather than vice-versa, as it should be. We also think it may be because theorists of public engagement focus on purposes and results while practitioners tend to concentrate on methods. Being both, we are inclined to notice gaps and do our best to fill them.

I'm particularly impressed by the handbook and designer tool because I've tried my hand at writing a guide to effective participation, and know how difficult it is to take people through the options. Drew Mackie and I are now developing a complementary approach through engagement games, in which people working in groups develop scenarios and consider possible methods. We now know where to signpost people once their interest in process design is aroused. Dialogue by Design offer a range of consultancy services to follow through the advice in the handbook and online designer. I can't think of a better way of demonstrating the potential value of these services, while also providing such excellent free advice. Smart engagement.

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