Involve and Local Government Improvement and Development have recently published ‘Not another Consultation' -a new guide on informal engagement in the health sector. It outlines practical ways of engaging with local people in ways which are fun and creative.
We worry a lot about the 'usual suspects'; I'd argue we should worry more about the 'usual methods' which we use out of reflex. Public meetings, online consultation documents and other 'traditional' methods are useful -in some contexts and for some people. What the document proposes is to broaden the range of tools we use to include approaches which feel more like games than social research.
I think there are three strong reasons for making engagement more fun:
1. Firstly, it'll help you broaden your participant profile, reaching people who will never come along if the process seems dry and dull. 2. Secondly, people will enjoy the sessions more, so they're more likely to come back, recommend it to friends and they'll contribute more creatively. As a result you may get more from the meetings. 3. Finally, these types of events tend to be more enjoyable for the organiser as well.
So if there are so many compelling reasons why don't more public bodies embrace a more creative and fun approach to consultation and engagement? I think the answer partly lies in organisational culture. 'Fun' feels like a very foreign concept in a professional world and so the idea that colourful crayons, funny shaped Post Its and glitter sticks might be legitimate consultation expenses might be met with some resistance.
What I have found is that you can get people who self-identify as 'serious' and 'professional' to do things that are creative and enjoyable but you need to frame it in the right way. Approaches such as World Cafe (where you draw on the table cloths) and Open Space (where there is no agenda) tend to be resisted by many professionals and doubly so if we use the ‘fluffy' language which tends to surround these methods. Try selling the ideas of 'hospitable space', 'Native American talking objects' and 'whenever it starts is the right time' (to name a few examples) to sceptical bureaucrats!
Instead I've had better results where I've focussed on emphasising that these methods have been used repeatedly by big companies (IBM, Shell, Toyota), by big institutions (World Economic Forum, NHS trusts etc) and on the research which shows that more creative approaches are good at enhancing creative solutions.
Of course ‘fun' isn't risk free; one of the biggest risks is of seeming insensitive or flippant towards your participants. I've seen cases where project staff were very excited about new voting pads and wanted to do a quiz about what people liked about the neighbourhood. Normally that would be a good idea. The problem was the local people were more interested in talking about cuts and their disappointment towards the council and so the quiz came across as a diversionary exercise. It is far easier to do something 'fun' around an upbeat topic than it is about something contentious (such as cuts). In these latter cases we might need to settle for 'respectful' consultation.
There will be scepticism towards informal engagement; this is after all a new way of working. We need to keep chipping away at the attitude that engagement must be worthy and consultation must be like pulling teeth or else it lack rigour and is not good evidence. Our participants deserve better than this and so do we.
Last week Involve and Sciencewise held a joint workshop on how to measure the costs and benefits of engagement. We brought together around 30 people from a diverse range of organisations with interest in the issue for an afternoon's discussion.
One of the most interesting discussions of the afternoon was on why different people want to measure the costs and benefits of engagement. Some people at the event were focussed on building a business case for engagement in order to convince sceptical managers and budget holders while others were interested carrying out objective research into what works and building hard evidence into cost-effectiveness. In short, is this research or promotion?
This is a vital question; there is a real danger of confusion and mistrust if the two get mixed up; in the end I think we need both.
On one hand I think we need hard nosed evaluation of engagement. We need to know what works and what doesn't, especially in a time of unprecedented pressure on the public sector. To except engagement from cuts as a matter of principle is unrealistic. There is a lot of wasteful engagement going on that doesn't meet the needs of the funders or citizens; if we can find the evidence needed to convince people to stop doing this - then great! However rigorous evaluation won't be enough on its own.
Full-blown economic evaluation is expensive and time consuming (not to mention skills intensive). A lot of practitioners are delivering worthwhile engagement projects but have only anecdotal evidence to support this. They are unlikely to get resources to do a full academic evaluation. Instead, as the spending review bites, their budgets are likely to be slashed unless they have access to simple tools that help them articulate the costs and benefits of their work to their managers and budget holders. A lot of good work risks getting cut in a false economy, simply because people are unable to explain the benefits in language that managers can relate to.
Maybe we need a two tier system for measuring the costs and benefits of engagement: on the one hand high end, academic controlled studies and trials to build a water tight evidence base, probably limited to a small number of selected significant programmes. On the other hand there will also be a need for very practical tools for practitioners and advocates to build the business case for engagement.
There were many additional key points raised at the workshop and for those who couldn't make it there is an event report due out soon with a summary of the discussion points.
Involve is also developing a practical framework on measuring costs and benefits with Consumer Focus. The report has not yet been officially launched. Get in touch if you want a copy of either document: Edward@involve.org.uk
If you can't wait here are some other resources on measuring costs and benefits:
Involve's 2005 report on costs and benefits of engagement
Making a difference -Involve/Shared Practice Evaluation framework which include aspects of costs and benefits.
Local Government Improvement and Development -Business case tool for community empowerment
CDF -Art of Influence: How to make the case for community development
Last week I was lucky enough to attend the Council of Europe's Forum on the Future of Democracy, held in Yerevan, Armenia where I spoke on a panel on the topic of "Sustainable communities for a living democracy". The panel had a great line up of speakers from Access Info Europe, the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe (IRI Europe) and the Armenian Congress of Local and Regional Authorities amongst others.
Julian Popov, the Chair of the Bulgarian School of Political Studies, wrote an excellent discussion paper on the challenges that climate change poses to democracy to kick-start our discussion. What I took from the discussion was that there are several ways in which climate change might undermine democracy.
Firstly some ecologically minded thinkers have started to doubt democracy's ability to deal with issues such as climate change. The urgency of the issue and the seeming inaction from democratically elected politicians (most recently evidenced in Copenhagen) has led James Lovelock to declare that climate change will make it "necessary to put democracy on hold for a while" and Thomas L. Freidman to state that "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But ... can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century". The threat is that this view may spread more widely and lead to a search for a more autocratic green solution.
The second challenge is linked to democracy's limited ability to deal with sudden catastrophic events; most recently we have seen how the floods in Pakistan floods and fires in Russia have placed both societies under intense pressure. Sudden external events undermine democracy; a form of government which requires time to reflect and consult to be effective. Reagan wrote "We had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis... Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?". How can you be inclusive, participative and deliberative when time is in short supply? Often the answer is you don't.
In the case of Pakistan the floods have left many elected politicians discredited whilst the army and the Islamists have seen their credibility rise. Of course one off events, no matter how crippling can be managed by democracies; the challenge comes if they are frequent or interact. Popov cites some reports saying that "if Pakistan has one flood like this every 20 years it would never be able to move above its current economic level." It is interesting to think how resilient British democracy would be in the face of such challenges.
I'm beginning to ask myself if there isn't a tipping point for democracy as well as the climate? A point of no return from which the political structures are unable to recover. Maybe we need global institutions to pay as much attention to mitigating against autocracy as they do to mitigating against disease?
A third way in which climate change may be undermining democracy has to do with energy technology. Many development professionals have remarked on the so called ‘resource curse'. The more natural resource income a country has the less local accountable and democratic the political structures tend to be. In short the more oil the less democracy. This is partly because government is less dependent on citizen consent for income and partly because highly centralised fossil fuel energy systems are easy for governments to control and manipulate. Chad is an example where over the past decade oil income has allowed the government to increase military spending from $14 million to $315 million; with negative impacts on democratisation and human rights.
If fossil fuel technology itself is conducive to corruption can the opposite be true for be true for renewable energy? This technology tends to be cheaper, more dispersed and harder for central power to monopolise. Might a shift from carbon to renewable fuels also have a positive impact by democratising the economy and society?
As Involve have written in our recent Talking for a Change pamphlet Climate Change is a very difficult topic for governments to deal with. We argue that while there are many problems, a key one is that government can't do it all alone. Given the wide ranging changes necessary for mitigation government will need people's consent, and more importantly given the wide ranging causes of CO2 emissions governments will also need people's collaboration.
So does climate change mean the end of democracy as we know it? I remain optimistic that democracy can deal with the multiple challenges. Positive examples from across the world show that democracies can facilitate people taking action themselves. Diverse examples such as Pledge bank, Cofacio and Orange Rockcorps are all examples where people are encouraged to take positive action starting from the bottom up and building on people's everyday motivations; something our recent research as found is very important. Viral examples such as these show that perhaps another type of tipping point is possible...
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.