To celebrate the launch of new pamphlet ‘From Fairy tale to reality’ I’m writing ‘Facilitation Fables’ every Friday throughout February (I’ve already done fable number one, fable number two and fable number three). In this fourth instalment I look at a fable where I think good engagement could have changed the end result. The fable for this week is ‘The Fox and the Stork’:
The Fox and the Stork
A Fox invited a Stork to dinner, at which the only fare provided was a large flat dish of soup. The Fox lapped it up with great relish, but the Stork with her long bill tried in vain to partake of the savoury broth. Her evident distress caused the sly Fox much amusement. But not long after the Stork invited him in turn, and set before him a pitcher with a long and narrow neck, into which she could get her bill with ease. Thus, while she enjoyed her dinner, the Fox sat by hungry and helpless, for it was impossible for him to reach the tempting contents of the vessel.
A number of fables deal with the negative impact of conflict. The petty tit for tat vindictiveness of the Fox and the Stork is laughable. In other fables the conflict is not quite so harmless. For example in the fable of the Eagle and the Fox the two animals end up eating each other’s offspring. We have probably all seen situations where organizations, communities and families are torn apart by conflict. Conflict comes at a high price, it leads to spiteful behaviour and ‘lose-lose’ outcomes which often get worse over time.
Luckily there are a number of approaches to overcome conflict. So how could this all have been solved? Here’s a rewrite:
The conflict between the Fox and the Stork got worse and worse. The Fox played loud music to keep the Stork up late at night; the Stork retaliated by spreading malicious rumours about the Fox. Before long both animals had competing law suits against the other and the whole neighbourhood was choosing sides. All of this conflict and commotion was noticed by the humble Tortoise (this happened at a time before his successful career as a racer). The Tortoise knew that something had to be done and tried to get the Fox and the Stork to talk to each other, but both refused. “He has to apologise to me first” said the Fox. “He’s the one with the problem, not me” said the Stork. The Tortoise was a trained facilitator and came up with a plan.
He knew that it was a long term plan. He spoke to the Fox and Stork’s close friends to reach out to the two angry animals. The friends of the Stork and the Fox managed to convince them to meet with the Tortoise individually. The Tortoise sat over numerous sessions and listened to the concerns and the worldviews of the two animals. After a number of sessions the Fox and the Stork agreed to meet together. The first meeting was tense, with lawyers in the room and both combatants threatening to walk out. The Tortoise had to set up some very strict ground rules, including rules about not interrupting and using positive language. They did a number of exercises of listening to each other and trying to see the situation from the perspective of the other person but little progress was made. Both the Fox and the Stork complained bitterly about how the Tortoise was wasting their time. “Fantastic” said the Tortoise “I’d like you both to write a joint list about things that you are unhappy about how I’ve run the process so far”. The Fox and the Stork worked together on the list and after this the conversation flowed a little easier. They began to find areas where they agreed.
The next meeting they dispensed with the lawyers and instead met in a more relaxed setting. As more and more common ground opened up the Stork exclaimed “You seem really nice Mr Fox, I don’t understand why you’ve been playing rude pranks on me ever since you met me?”. “That’s how foxes show people that they like them Mr Stork. What’s rude is your unwillingness to complement me on my pranks.” The two animals began to realise that while they would perhaps never share the same values they could at least understand each other.
The Tortoise suggested that the two animals agree to work together on a project that was important to both of them and the Fox and Stork decided to clean up a local park. At the end they shook hands. “I think I misunderstood you Mr Fox. I’ll never understand why you insist on playing silly pranks, but at least now I know that you don’t mean any ill will.” “And I’ll never understand how you can stand being so stiff necked and humourless, but I know your heart is in the right place.”
Two weeks later, to celebrate the fact that the two animals had agreed to be friends, the Tortoise organised a banquet dinner. The waiter approached the table and asked “Would you like Soup for your starter?” As one the Fox, the Stork and the Tortoise responded “Absolutely not!” and laughed.
Facilitation has a number of key techniques for overcoming conflict, including ground rules, dialogue and mediation. We know how to frame conversations positively and work on uncovering areas of consensus, even in cases of extremely deep seated anger and conflict. Clearly these techniques were not always available in Aesop’s time.
I hope you enjoyed this fourth instalment of Facilitation fables. Next week we will finally launch our new publication. This series of interlinked posts has been a departure for me and for Involve. If you liked it let me know and I’ll think about if there is merit in doing something similar in the future.
To celebrate the launch of new pamphlet ‘From Fairy tale to reality’ I’m writing ‘Facilitation Fables’ every Friday throughout February (You can find fable number one and fable number two). In this third installment I look at a fable where I think good engagement could have changed the end result. So I thought I’d have a go a rewriting it. The fable for this week is ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’: The Grasshopper and the Ants
One fine day in winter some Ants were busy drying their store of corn, which had got rather damp during a long spell of rain. Presently up came a Grasshopper and begged them to spare her a few grains, “For,” she said, “I’m simply starving.” The Ants stopped work for a moment, though this was against their principles. “May we ask,” said they, “what you were doing with yourself all last summer? Why didn’t you collect a store of food for the winter?” “The fact is,” replied the Grasshopper, “I was so busy singing that I hadn’t the time.” “If you spent the summer singing,” replied the Ants, “you can’t do better than spend the winter dancing.” And they chuckled and went on with their work.
As a child I always found this fable very harsh. I felt sorry for the poor grasshopper who hadn’t thought things through. As human beings we often face this problem –long term thinking isn’t our strength. We don’t save enough for our pensions, we don’t invest enough in our own health, and we don’t stop smoking until it is too late. The case of the boiling frog, unaware of his predicament or classic cases of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, such as over-fishing show that this is often a true representation of what happens in real life. We could chalk this up to human nature (and we’d be partially right) but this doesn’t make it inevitable. Here’s my rewrite of how facilitation might have helped:
A Young Ant looked at the grasshopper starving and freezing and asked her Ant colleagues if this had happened before. “Oh, every winter it’s the same thing” they said “We warn them in the summer that they need to prepare for winter, they never listen and then they come begging when the snow starts falling”. “We have to do something” Said the young Ant. The other ants rolled their eyes and did their best to ignore her, but she was so insistent that in the end the other Ants decided to appoint her the head of a ‘Task force’ to get her out of their hair.
The Young Ant sat down with her colleague, a very Judgmental Ant to figure out what to do. ‘Let’s run a campaign in the spring” said the Judgmental Ant, “We run a slogan like ‘Don’t be lazy –Save!’”. So they tried that, but soon it became obvious that the campaign wasn’t working. One particularly Boastful Grasshopper wrote a hit song mocking the campaign called ‘Don’t be boring –Sing!’. The Judgmental Ant threw up his many arms and said “We should just give up; these ungrateful grasshoppers will never change!” The Young Ant, however would not be so easily discouraged.
She moved in with a grasshopper family to carry out some Observational research. She wanted to understand why the grasshoppers loved singing so much, why it was important and what values they held. It very quickly became obvious that the existing campaign was great for the hardworking ants who designed it, but terrible for the fun loving grasshoppers that were meant to pay attention to it. The Young Ant recruited grasshoppers for a deliberative session where participants looked at the evidence, spoke to experts and discussed at length. At one point the Boastful Grasshopper stood up and exclaimed “ I’ve just realized that if we don’t start saving we won’t be have the strength to sing throughout the year!”. The Judgmental Ant muttered something about thick headed grasshoppers under his breath but knew better than to say such things with the Young Ant around.
A number of grasshoppers were recruited as peer trainers. The Boastful Grasshopper turned out to be a masterful influencer. He came up with the new slogan “Saving means singing all year round!”. Over the course of the summer real changes began to be made.
Six months later the ground was covered by snow, but the grasshoppers had both food and warmth. The Boastful Grasshopper sat in front of the fire with an admiring group of young Grasshoppers. “Well all this saving thing was my idea to begin with –so you have me to thank for the fact that you’re all warm now” he said. The Judgmental Ant was about to object but the Young Ant cut him off. “Best to let contented grasshopper lie” She said with a wink.
In many cases the Government wants citizens to change their behaviour. Top down approaches, such as campaigns, often fail to actually change behaviour. There are a number of new approaches which can be used, including observational research, co-production, peer trainers and deliberative approaches. It is important to understand people’s values and to not assume that the incentives that work for one group can automatically be transferred to another (see the work on values modes for example).
I hope you enjoyed this third installment of Facilitation fables. Next week I’ll look at how facilitation could have changed the outcome of another classic fable. It will be the last Facilitation Fable before we launch our new pamphlet on the 26th. Let me know which your favourite fable is –I might include it in future posts!
In the lead up to the launch of Involve and the RSA’s new pamphlet ‘From Fairy tale to Reality’ Edward Andersson is writing ‘Facilitation Fables’ each Friday in February. In this second installment he looks at the fable variously known as ‘The Mice in Council’, ‘The Cat and the Bell’ or ‘Belling the Cat’.
‘The Mice in Council’ by Gustave Doré -Courtesy of Wiki commons
‘The Mice in Council’ is an interesting fable. I find that its moral lesson runs counter to the ideas of citizen led innovation; so I thought I’d have a go a rewriting it. Here is the fable in its original form:
The Mice in Council
Once upon a time all the Mice met together in Council, and discussed the best means of securing themselves against the attacks of the cat. After several suggestions had been debated, a Mouse of some standing and experience got up and said, “I think I have hit upon a plan which will ensure our safety in the future, provided you approve and carry it out. It is that we should fasten a bell round the neck of our enemy the cat, which will by its tinkling warn us of her approach.” This proposal was warmly applauded, and it had been already decided to adopt it, when an old Mouse got upon his feet and said, “I agree with you all that the plan before us is an admirable one: but may I ask who is going to bell the cat?”
Read straight this fable seems to say ‘there’s no point in suggesting new ideas –it won’t work anyway’. I think that we have all met this attitude in meetings where phrases such as ‘It’ll never work’, ‘we tried that once’ and ‘Data protection/health and safety/ prohibits it’ are often uttered. Of course it is very important to realistically assess proposed ideas; but people often use phrases like this to close down discussions. There are ample examples of how innovation is possible. So how might we rewrite the fable?
When the old Mouse finished talking the room became quiet. A sense of distress descended on the assembled Mice –was the Cat an inescapable fact of life? Another Mouse stood up and spoke. “Our friend has a point –belling the cat will be difficult. Let’s break into small groups and discuss how we can bell the cat without risking our lives? Remember –there are no stupid ideas.” “There are lots of stupid ideas” muttered the Old Mouse under his breath, but the room had already erupted into a hive of activity and no one paid him much attention. Over the next few days tech savvy Mice set up a crowd sourcing website, some Mice organised an unconference (called ‘Bell the Cat Camp’) and a wealthy Mouse made a large cheese reward available to anyone who came up with a workable solution as part of a challenge prize. The sceptical Old Mouse was asked to act as a critical friend of the process, pointing out any overlooked flaws in the suggested ideas. This was a role he took to with gusto. A wide array of ideas were suggested –using a long stick, firing the bell at the cat using a sling shot, attaching the bell to the cat with Velcro or glue, or tricking the cat to ingest the bell. In the end one Mouse stood up and asked “Do we even need to use a Bell? Why don’t we just use a long stick to glue a GPS chip to the Cat’s collar and track it using that?” And that is what the Mice did; although the Old Mouse lamented that a Bell would have been much better solution than any newfangled chip.
Many of the problems we face as a society seem insurmountable. However over the past decades we have developed numerous tools that can help us solve intractable problems. Examples include Challenge Prizes, Unconferences, Open Space meetings, Crowd Sourcing and Appreciative Inquiry. The attitude that nothing will work paralyses groups. Reducing air pollution, adjusting to an ageing population and dealing with the rise in chronic health conditions are similar to Belling the Cat –difficult but definitely not impossible.
In the third instalment of Facilitation fables I will look at behaviour change and experiential learning. Let me know which your favourite fable is –I might include it!
Each Friday in February I’ll be writing ‘Facilitation Fables’. At the end of February Involve will launch a new pamphlet, in collaboration with the RSA, looking at the common false myths around engagement. It has been a really enjoyable pamphlet to research and write and so I thought I’d do something fun to celebrate. As part of the research for our new pamphlet I spent time looking at myths, legends and fables. I found a treasure trove of fables – all with moral messages. Some of them – like the tortoise and the hare – are familiar to most of us, whereas others are less well known.
These fables are very old, and as a result the degree to which the moral message still rings true differs. I was surprised to find how many of the fables have messages which are powerful for advocates of participation and open government. In this instalment I’ll mention three fables which I think highlight vital learning for government and citizens alike and which encapsulate what Involve is all about. Despite being thousands of years old they are still relevant. In coming instalments I’ll attempt to rewrite other fables where facilitation and engagement could have led to other outcomes.
Moral 1: Those in power need the help of (seemingly) insignificant individuals to overcome challenges The Lion and the Mouse A Lion asleep in his lair was waked up by a Mouse running over his face. Losing his temper he seized it with his paw and was about to kill it. The Mouse, terrified, piteously entreated him to spare its life. “Please let me go,” it cried, “and one day I will repay you for your kindness.” The idea of so insignificant a creature ever being able to do anything for him amused the Lion so much that he laughed aloud, and good-humouredly let it go. But the Mouse’s chance came, after all. One day the Lion got entangled in a net which had been spread for game by some hunters, and the Mouse heard and recognised his roars of anger and ran to the spot. Without more ado it set to work to gnaw the ropes with its teeth, and succeeded before long in setting the Lion free. “There!” said the Mouse, “you laughed at me when I promised I would repay you: but now you see, even a Mouse can help a Lion.”
Moral 2: When faced with challenges “ordinary” citizens are able to come up with ingenious solutions which may have eluded experts. The Crow and the Pitcher A thirsty Crow found a Pitcher with some water in it, but so little was there that, try as she might, she could not reach it with her beak, and it seemed as though she would die of thirst within sight of the remedy. At last she hit upon a clever plan. She began dropping pebbles into the Pitcher, and with each pebble the water rose a little higher until at last it reached the brim, and the knowing bird was enabled to quench her thirst.
Moral 3: When trying to convince citizens and stakeholders to change their behaviour the old “command and control” approach is less effective than one which builds on positive incentives and encouragement. The North Wind and the Sun A dispute arose between the North Wind and the Sun, each claiming that he was stronger than the other. At last they agreed to try their powers upon a traveller, to see which could soonest strip him of his cloak. The North Wind had the first try; and, gathering up all his force for the attack, he came whirling furiously down upon the man, and caught up his cloak as though he would wrest it from him by one single effort: but the harder he blew, the more closely the man wrapped it round himself. Then came the turn of the Sun. At first he beamed gently upon the traveller, who soon unclasped his cloak and walked on with it hanging loosely about his shoulders: then he shone forth in his full strength, and the man, before he had gone many steps, was glad to throw his cloak right off and complete his journey more lightly clad.
I hope you enjoyed this first instalment of Facilitation fables. Next week I’ll look at how facilitation could have changed the outcome of some classic fables. Let me know which your favourite fable is – I might include it!
As Involve prepares to close PeopleandParticipation.net in favour of our new platform ParticipationCompass.org, Edward Andersson reflects on the past 5 years and what has changed.
It’s been nearly five years since Involve launched our practitioner site www.peopleandparticipation.net and in a few days time the site will close forever.
It was on the 19th of October 2007 that then Communities Secretary Hazel Blears launched the site as part of the ‘Empowerment Action Plan’. On reflection it has been a good five years; although 2007 feels like a very different time compared to today’s reality. The Government in power was different. The organisations were different (of the three key funders of peopleandparticipation.net -The Sustainable Development Commission, The Ministry of Justice and the Department for Communities and Local Government – one has since folded, one no longer has a remit around democracy and one has seen drastic changes in focus). The budgetary situation was of course vastly different –the operating assumption was that next year’s budget would be bigger than the last.
The buzz word of the day was ‘empowerment’ –the ‘Big Society’ lay three years into the future; Participatory Budgeting was unheard of outside of a few pilot sites and Twitter was a small niche service just over a year old.
Much was different back in 2007 when we set up peopleandparticipation.net, but on the other hand much remains the same. One of these constants is the need that policy makers and Government has for impartial advice around engagement.
Peopleandparticipation.net was one of the first interactive sites which provided people with the ability to find methods that worked for their situation. We’ve since had a number of other good examples like Participedia.
Peopleandparticipation.net has been a great success for the field at large and Involve. We still receive thousands of hits per month and we get a steady stream of positive feedback so it may seem a shame to close the site and redirect the trafic. However over the last years we’ve begun to worry about the site. It was very popular but also beginning to show its age.
The platform it is built on is a wiki –exciting in 2007 but old news in 2012. The design seems a bit old and sadly due to the custom nature of the site the whole thing needed revamping.
The content was also feeling out of date with many case studies referring back to 2007 and earlier. The online community hadn’t really developed in a way where the wiki platform was really useful and the experience of using the site wasn’t great on a mobile device. In 2011 it turned out that due to upgrades to the platform we’d need to invest thousands of pounds in rewriting code in order to keep the sites functionality up and running –an investment just to stand still.
At this point we were approached by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German Foundation with an interest in democracy who suggested a collaborative venture. Using the information and structure of Peopleandparticipation.net they wanted to create two new German and English language sites. Here we are 8 months later with participationCompass.org.
We launched the English version a few weeks ago and your feedback has been great. There is also a German version.
When it comes to ParticipationCompass.org I am excited by what is new: the mobile app, enhanced video content and real time search; as well as being comforted by what has not changed: the focus on providing impartial advice on Methods, Experts and Resources around participation. See here for a tutorial video.
I will feel some sadness when we pull the plug on peopleandparticipation.net, but I am also excited about the recent launch of ParticipationCompass.org and what we face in future. I can’t help wondering what new platform we’ll be launching in 2017?
The final entry of a three part series, Edward provides a selection of some of the best ‘how to’ guides on engagement and consultation. How To Consult –Great Guides
In two preceding posts I’ve looked at the initial reactions to the Cabinet Office’s new Consultation principles as well as Involve’s take on the new guidance.
Since the new principles are very up front about not being ‘How to’ guidance (they outline the importance of listening to the public but do not tell you how to do it) I thought it would be best if I flag up my pick of the best practical resources for civil servants interested in engagement and consultation. Of course this list of good guides is only indicative; if you know of additional guidance on consultation and engagement please comment below.
A good place to start
I thought I’d start with our new Participation Compass website which was developed in collaboration with the Bertelsmann Foundation. The site contains descriptions of over 30 methods and cases of participation, and links to loads and loads of participatory resources. Participation Compass will contain all the best bits from People and Participation (Our previous and now out of use best practice site) with an interface for a new decade. Participation Compass will even have an App for those of you who need participation information on the go! You can find the original paper publication on which the site is based here: http://www.involve.org.uk/people-and-participation/
Principles for Consultation
Involve developed 9 principles of deliberation (PDF document) with the National Consumer Council a while back; it is a vital resource for understanding the difference between deliberative and other forms of consultation.
The Consultation Institute has developed its Consultation Charter which provides outline good practice principles. These are good resources, but still only provide outline ideas and support. For more detailed support you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Broadening your outlook
A common mistake people make in England is to neglect the great work done in the other parts of the UK. I’ve already mentioned these great Participation Principles from Participation Cymru in Wales.
Communities Scotland have also developed useful National Standards for Community Engagement.
Another useful Scottish resource is this recent toolkit from the Scottish Health Council with a good overview of methods.
For those with an interest in International good practice, the OECD have produced “Citizens as Partners” (PDF document) a Handbook on consultation and engagement.
In my view, Annette Zera has created one of the best practical introductions to creative ways to run meetings. “Getting on Brilliantly” used to be a resource you had to pay for but now it is available for free here and everyone who has to run or design meetings should read it.
Dialogue by Design has produced this “Dialogue Designer” which contains a lot of practical information along with guidance on selecting a good method for your consultation.
For those looking to expand their range of methods Involve’s Not another consultation! Document provides information on how to run events that combine the informality of community fun days with meaningful engagement methods.
For those interested in consulting online there are a number of guides.
One of the best recent ones is The Digital Engagement Guide, developed by Helpful Technology.
New Zealand also has a wealth of experience in online engagement, some of which can be accessed in this guide.
And here is an older, but beautifully designed guide: eDemocracy in Bristol Guide (PDF document).
Guides to Evaluating consultation
RCUK have prepared guidance on how to evaluate public engagement: http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/media/news/2005news/Pages/050323.aspx
Involve also prepared guidelines with Diane Warburton: Making a Difference
Other useful guides
For those civil servants wrestling with the difficult choice of whether or not to pay people to participate, this resource looks at the issue of paying participants.
I’d also like to flag up an American resource (PDF document) which is useful for deliberative approaches.
The National Empowerment Partnership microsite contains numerous briefing papers on engaging with older people, minorities and rural populations.
The former Improvement and Development Agency developed a number of useful guides over the years, including “The ideal empowering authority: an illustrated framework (PDF document)” and “Community Engagement and Empowerment: A Guide for Councillors.” (PDF document)
For those with an interest in Planning the RTPI “Guidelines on Effective Community Involvement and Consultation Good Practice” (PDF document) may be of interest.
The Sciencewise programme has published A “Departmental Dialogue Index” (PDF document) which allows Central Government teams to assess themselves and their Departments to see how they could improve their engagement and consultation.
And finally saving one of the best ones for last Participedia provides a range of in depth information on methods and case studies. The team is led by Academics from Harvard and the quality of information on the site is very high.
The web is awash with good guides to consultation and engagement. Despite this, much consultation misses the mark today. Citizens I speak to about consultation are generally cynical about the very activities that Government undertakes to reduce apathy and disengagement. Clearly the new Consultation principles are important; but they can only be a small part of the solution. We need to increase knowledge and skills, both amongst civil servants, but also amongst stakeholders and citizens.
I’ve shared some of the tools I’ve found valuable through the years. Now I’d be interested to hear which tools you can’t do without? Comment below!
In the second of a three part series about the new Government Consultation Principles, Edward Andersson writes about Involve’s reaction to these new principles. In my previous post I looked at initial reactions to the Cabinet Office’s new Consultation Principles. In this post I will provide some Involve commentary.
Like many other guidance rewrites under the current government the new Consultation Principles are much shorter than the document they replace (See for example the debate around the Best Value Guidance and Duty to Involve). The Consultation Principles are three pages long; they replace a code of conduct (PDF document) which ran to thirteen pages. So on the count of saving on paper and printing costs the new Principles are an improvement. What of the content –what have they had to cut out in order to shorten the document?
The principles contain important guidance that Involve and many others have called for over the years; including a focus on real engagement and not tokenism, an acknowledgement that consultation is not always appropriate and an expectation that consultation will be done early and in a proportionate manner. This marks a move away from a more rigid ‘one size fits all’ approach –an approach which has led to a spree of court cases in recent years.
One of the most controversial changes is that the new principles do away with the ’12 week rule’ which previously stated that “Consultations should normally last for at least 12 weeks with consideration given to longer timescales where feasible and sensible”. The new statement says timeframes should be “proportionate and realistic” and might “typically vary between two and 12 weeks”.
The problem with the old definition was that Civil Servants became hung up on the 12 weeks as an absolute law. The new version does away with some of the rigidity but insidiously 12 weeks has ceased to be a minimum and will now be perceived by many to be a maximum. It is true that there are many cases where a shorter consultation process is possible –but for 2 weeks to be a meaningful consultation period there has to have been substantial engagement in advance and the stakeholders need heads up as to when to expect the consultation.
Worryingly I think many civil servants will not read it this way. A strong argument for the 12 week minimum rule previously was that membership groups need time to consult with their local branches and members before submitting a formal response. A shorter period is likely to lead to more rushed and less considered responses.
I like where the principles place their emphasis: tailoring the consultation to the relevant participants and issues, providing easy to understand information, making sure that departments make clear how previous feedback taken into consideration, the importance of clear objectives and cross- departmental collaboration.
I can see where the principles have come from –consultation is often done as a tick box exercise, following a formalistic process, for unclear reasons and with little feedback. The two and a half year Pathways through Participation research project interviewed over 100 citizens and we did not find one of them who had a positive experience of formal consultation. Clearly there are massive problems with consultation today, not least that it leaves citizens cynical, angry and disempowered. The new principles may play a role in responding to this.
However in cutting ten pages from the guidance the new Principles have missed off some important things that were covered in the Old Code of Conduct. A key thing that is missing is definitions of consultation, engagement and other terms.
The document is very up front about not being a ‘how to’ guide. The brevity does mean that it does little to define terms. The statement “Consultation is part of wider engagement” is true but without explanation and backing information the advice may go unheeded.
The New Consultation Principles also do not mention the importance of deliberative dialogue when engaging on complicated issues. Given the good work done by Sciencewise and other parts of Government with these types of methods it seems a shame that civil servants looking for advice on how to consult aren’t signposted.
On a very fundamental level a key problem with the principles is that they solely focus on consultation and fail to encourage or support civil servants who want to engage citizens in decisions at an earlier stage or where civil servants might wish to devolve power to citizens directly.
The Consultation principles are not very inspiring and there is a risk they will encourage more of the same from government.
There are two areas where the Code of Conduct on Consultation provided structure which the new Principles do not mention. The Code required each consultation to provide a standard table of basic information so that citizens and stakeholders could quickly see if the consultation was relevant to them. Under the Code each department also had to appoint a Consultation Coordinator who would provide advice on how to consult as well as coordinating the consultation across the departments. I’d be interested to hear from Civil servants and those who responded to many consultations –have you found the Consultation Coordinators and standard table of basic information useful? Will you miss them or are they just another bureaucratic add on?
Since the new principles for all their virtues do not tell civil servant HOW to engage and consult I thought that I’d list some of the best ‘how to’ guides out there next week. If you have suggestions for guide guidance on consultation and engagement please comment below.
In the first of a series of three Blog posts about the new UK Government Consultation Principles Edward Andersson looks at the initial reactions from the engagement community.
The Cabinet Office launched their new Consultation Principles on the 17 of July (Which replaced the old Code of Conduct for Consultation) while I was on holiday and it has taken a few weeks for me to find the time to write about the changes. In this first blog post about the principles I’ll look at stakeholder reactions. A second blog post will provide some Involve commentary and a final post will provide links to further guidance to support civil servants.
The Principles received a mixed reception. They were welcomed by The Consultation Institute who said it would help make consultation “fit for purpose and not unnecessarily onerous”.
Online Engagement expert Steph Gray was cautiously optimistic but worried that civil servants might choose a simplistic interpretation that minimized their interaction with the public and stakeholders. He also said “‘digital by default’ is at risk of becoming a weasel phrase akin to ‘evidence based policymaking’ or ‘social marketing’ which can be met with a nod to a SurveyMonkey response form or a tweeted launch.” He also mentioned the excellent Participation Principles written by Participation Cymru for the Welsh Government.
“Compact Voice” was critical of the new principles and felt they might prevent organisations from responding or engaging with policy decisions which affect them and Chris Whitehouse characterized the new principles as “an incredibly arbitrary system that will result in too little time being given to consultations on key policies and will severely limit the opportunities charities have to engage in public policy development”.
In our next blog post I will provide some Involve commentary on the new Principles.
Edward Andersson discusses what digital technology means for engagement and what the strengths and weaknesses are of engaging online. A week ago I gave a talk at Government Digital Services on Digital and face to face engagement. This post is a summary of what I said.
First of all I acknowledge that Involve is different from many others in the digital engagement field; we’re not software producers, we’re not trying to sell software and we focus on engagement as whole rather than digital engagement. Our mission is to make the public sector into better commissioners of dialogue and engagement. I’ll start with the question to what degree digital technology represents a breakthrough?
Two quotes illustrate how differently new technology is interpreted:
“The world is poised on the cusp of an economic and cultural shift as dramatic as that of the Industrial Revolution.”
Steven Levy (Wired journalist)
“The Internet is a telephone system that’s gotten uppity.”
Clifford Stoll (US Author and astronomer)
My view is that both quotes are true, in their own ways. We tend to overestimate changes in the short term (where many people hype up relatively mundane technologies) and underestimate the shifts in the longer term.
There is a tendency among consultants to create artificial distinctions between digital/online engagement and face to face engagement. Human nature is the same in both settings and of course a badly designed online consultation without a clear purpose is just as much a waste of time as a face to face process without a purpose.
I think people get excited about digital for the wrong reasons.
People often think that the key defining characteristics of digital are:
Speed –The internet is making things go faster, but the obvious question is ‘so what?’. The really big qualitative differences in terms of speed of sending messages happened in the 1860s. Nowadays the speed of communication is already faster than human beings can react to.
Scale –The internet does allow a larger number of people to take part than was possible before. It is a great thing but it can also lead people to focus too much on the number of people taking part. Many of the websites or articles which have attracted the most number of hits do so for the wrong reasons; scandals are great for hit rates but not for much else.
Cost–The Internet does have the possibility of reducing the costs of engagement; while this is true it is often oversold by consultants.
There are also very good reasons for shifting to Digital which are often overlooked:
Enabling -Digital technologies allows the third sector and individuals to self-organise and do things that in the past the council would have to do. This opens up tremendous opportunities (if we are willing to give up some control).
Networking –the Internet opens up possibilities of networking people who wouldn’t normally meet, for reasons of time, space and who they are.
Flexible -finally the nature of digital information allows comparison, aggregation, mashing up data, and ability to make it easily accessible. And to make lots of different sorts of outputs which would not be possible using pen and paper.
There are of course areas were online engagement doesn’t work as well as face to face, for example:
But of course it is not an either/or. In many cases face to face and online complement each other; and of course let’s not forget that digital technology can be used in face to face meetings as well.
Adding digital technology to face to face engagement allows:
The award winning Geraldton 2029 process in Western Australia has made use of a wide array of face to face and digital processes in determining the future of the town. 4000 people have been actively involved through world cafés, online surveys, online moderated deliberation, 21st century town hall meetings™, community events to celebrate milestones including BBQs. They have also used the local Newspaper facebook page heavily. What I like about the Geraldton process is how they have understood the strengths of face to face and online and worked with both.
- The Crowdsourced Icelandic constitution has been in the news a lot over the last few months. The Constitutional council has drafted and posted clauses each week open for public comment, and has live streamed their proceedings. The focus has often been on the online elements but it was made possible by in depth face to face deliberation, both from the elected Constitutional Council and a randomly selected national forum.
So to sum up my key points from my presentation:
Happy New Year! I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on where we are heading and what we might see in the next 12 months. 2012 as a year has been associated with all kinds of vague and misleading theories about Maya prophesies of impending apocalypse. Even though we are unlikely to see the end of the world, 2012 is still very likely to be challenging.
Take my predictions with a pinch of salt. As Niels Bohr quipped: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. It is humbling to remember that in 1962 the Decca Recording Company rejected the Beatles because “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”. Let’s hope that my predictions are more successful.
Turbulence is almost a given; it is instructive to reflect on where we were a year ago. None of the big events of 2011 were ones that we could have predicted. The Arab Spring has toppled seemingly unmovable dictatorships, seemingly calm streets in England erupted in riots and City centres of financial capitals around the world are occupied by disparate and angry protestors. What we expect of democracy is likely to be in transition. One thing is sure for 2012 –we’re bound to be surprised.
Another prediction is we are likely to see frustrations with democratic decision making spill into violence in parts of the world. For states in Middle East and elsewhere the coming year will be dangerous (as recent clashes in Tripoli and Cairo shows). Dictatorships seem to be less dangerous than the transition period to democracy and there is plenty that can go wrong. On a lesser scale communities in the UK and the rest of Europe are experiencing similar transitions and the corresponding risk of violence.
We are also likely to see increased non-violent conflict -2011 has seen a record number of court cases around engagement and consultation, from the Royal Brompton Hospital to London Councils. This is a development I view with unease. Judges are in no way equipped to rate the quality of consultations. It is also likely to encourage Councils to take a ‘back covering’ strategy, rather than focussing on a genuine conversation. We’re likely to see more court cases, and more conflict about engagement, consultation and the big society.
The economy will continue to be a problem. With fewer staff on hand the need to build skills in conflict resolution and facilitation will become acute in many areas. Funding engagement work with clear links to efficiencies and savings won’t be a problem; funding work which makes economic sense over the longer term and where investment is needed will.
Politicians will still mention and support engagement, at least on paper. There seems to be cross party agreement that politics is broken. Expect at least a few high profile initiatives around this topic launched by politicians.
Innovation. The flip side of all this turbulence is that there is a willingness to challenge old ways of working. We’ve seen Councils willing to embrace new ways of working, for example through the NESTA Creative Councils programme (which we are assisting on). Involve and RSA will shortly publish a pamphlet looking at examples of Radical Engagement –genuinely different approaches to citizen influence and we hope we’ll see many more new examples in the year to come.
2012 probably won’t bring a Maya Apocalypse. It will however be a year to remember; difficult but ultimately worthwhile.
So what about New Year’s Resolutions? For myself as a democracy practitioner I’ll suggest the following:
This blog is a repository for posts I have made over the years at Involve as well as more personal reflections.