By Todd Beavis, Commtractor and Founder & Principal of i.e. community
Working in community and stakeholder engagement, I have had the privilege of getting to know communities of all shapes and sizes, to better understand their needs and aspirations. While I have discovered many people committed to improving their community, I have also found widespread feelings of disconnection and disempowerment. Combined with a general sense of disillusionment with the ‘authorities’, underpinned by a belief that people in power are largely acting in their own interests.
When asked about their experience with engagement, the feedback is loud and clear. Not only is much of the consultation people have been involved not helping, it is often leading to greater disengagement.
The feedback from stakeholders and the community can be summed up as follows: “I have no influence on the decisions that affect me. If I am consulted, it’s largely a box-ticking exercise. I never hear anything back. I don’t believe it has any impact; the decision has already been made.”
Companies and government say: “We spend a lot of time and resources trying to engage and people aren’t interested. Good engagement is time-consuming and expensive. We constantly hear from the same people and mostly from those who have a problem. It’s hard to build trust when decision making is influenced by financial or political considerations.”
A story of declining trust
To better understand what was going on, I started talking to business and community leaders, councillors, engagement practitioners, and my colleagues at RMIT about these concerns.
Our challenge is underlined by the findings of the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global study looking at trust, based on 18 years of data across 28 countries. In 2017, the Barometer found that 59 per cent of Australians believe the system is broken. That most Australians believe the institutions we rely on – business, government, NGOs and the media – cannot be trusted to do what they say they will do.
The 2018 Barometer is just as sobering. Trust has continued to decline, with trust amongst the general population in all four institutions falling to below 50 per cent. Australia now sits just four percentage points above Russia, the world’s least trusting country.
Is our approach to engagement really helping?
When exploring engagement practice, there are some common themes that arise.
Engagement is often undertaken on a project by project basis and starts with a blank sheet, as though information is not available to provide an understanding of the views of our stakeholders. The same channels are used to engage the same people, so we hear largely from the usual suspects and the squeaky wheels.
Almost always, engagement is framed by the needs and interests of the organisation wanting to engage. We set out to ask people what they think about a new strategy, policy or development, without first making the effort to understand their perspective.
Too often, engagement occurs in a ‘black box’. Community views are captured through listening posts and workshops, or surveys and submissions via online portals. The data goes in, but what comes out is highly sanitised. There is little feedback or transparency.
In all, the process provides little opportunity to build the capacity of stakeholders to better understand the issues or contribute. Findings typically report the key themes of interest or concern, most of which we knew at the beginning of the process. On completion, there is often a lack of rigorous analysis that provides real insights into stakeholder perspectives and little evaluation about the effectiveness of the engagement.
Engaging to build trust
So how can we engage to build relationships and trust with our stakeholders?
Firstly, understand the context in which the engagement will take place. Gather all available information to gain an understanding of the views of your stakeholders in relation to the organisation or issue. In most instances, a bit of effort and digital nous can provide a good understanding of their views, whether the issue is important, and what else may be going on that could impact the outcomes of the engagement effort.
With an understanding of the context, ask if engagement is the right approach. Is now the right time? If an issue is highly contested, it may be necessary to do more work with stakeholders before engaging more broadly. Once a decision has been made to proceed, use the insights gained through research to define the problem and the population. What is it that you really need to achieve? Are you providing a voice or influencing change? Who exactly is the ‘community’ we need to engage?
Once the engagement commences, avoid the ‘black box’ and use the engagement activities to generate discussion and share outcomes along the way. The engagement process is an opportunity to create connections within the community and build capacity for people to understand the issues and work together.
Finally, in analysing the data, go beyond reporting the key themes raised in the discussion. Is it possible to capture what was said, who said it and how they are related to provide a better understanding of the way a community operates? What insights can be drawn to guide strategy development and communication? How can you foster the enthusiasm and interest in relation to the issue to generate positive change?
Intelligent engagement, based on rigorous research and analysis, provides us with the tools to build trust with our stakeholders and communities. More than ever we need to listen, create connections and inspire people to believe that things can change for the better.
Todd Beavis is Founder and Principal of ie.community, providing strategy, communication and engagement expertise to explore new ways to engage and inspire. He is a program advisor for the Master of Communication at RMIT and teaches strategic communication and engagement.