How the public sector is engaging their community
By Dr Helen Christensen
All over Australia, public organisations are getting better at engaging their communities. There are stories of councils working together with their communities to create innovative services and programs, state government departments asking people want they want before a decision (rather than trying to defend it afterwards) and people exclaiming with excitement “they actually listened to us”.
Decision-makers, executives, public sector staff, consultants and public servants are all seeing the benefits of the approach – more sustainable outcomes, less unproductive conflict and better communities and places.
These public engagement success stories are not the result of good luck. Effective public involvement is the culmination of good design and planning, skilled implementation and an enabling organisation. There’s a lot more to it than “going and having a chat”!
Good design and planning are multifaceted. It involves a process of being clear about what to engage on and why (and what not to), and who to engage with. It is a myth that the answer to these questions is obvious: a lot of poor engagement is the result of organisations not clarifying these points at the outset or making the wrong assumptions.
Once these elements are clearly defined, then the planning of how and when to do the engagement can begin. Knowing what methods and tools to use are highly dependent on the topic, the purpose and also the type of feedback being sought. There is a tendency for organisations to select methods that they are familiar with (such as online surveys), though these may not be the right choice for particular community groups (such as those without internet access or with language barriers).
With a good engagement plan designed, next comes the implementation skills needed to make it a success. These include respectfully interacting with the public (everything from taking calls to facilitating large groups), quality data collection and analysis, effective report writing and consistent project management throughout.
The cornerstone of good design, planning and implementation is an enabling organisation – one that adequately resources engagement, builds the capabilities of staff and decision-makers, has effective policies and procedures, has a collaborative culture and a genuine commitment to public engagement.
While there are a number of elements that need to be in place for public engagement to work well, they are achievable. With the right knowledge and skills in these areas, your organisation’s engagement process can deliver positive outcomes in a positive way.
About Dr Helen Christensen
Dr Helen Christensen is a community engagement specialist with skills in training, research, process design and facilitation. She works as an independent consultant and regularly delivers training for the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) where is also the Chair of the Research Committee. Helen is an Industry Fellow at the UTS Institute for Public Policy and Governance where she has recently completed a PhD exploring the practice and professionalisation of community engagement in Australian local government. Having worked for over 15 years in local government and consulting, Helen has considerable experience in: planning, delivering and reporting engagement; training people from a variety of sectors to plan and deliver engagement; building organisational capacity to better engage communities and stakeholders; and, leading the development of engagement frameworks and strategies.
Dr Helen Christensen’s courses
Public engagement is required in a wide variety of public projects. When done well it can help ensure that projects are delivered on time and on budget. This public engagement course will introduce you to the fundamentals of public engagement and what you need to do to make sure it has a positive impact on your project. Find out more >
Public sector organisations at all levels are required to lead public engagement processes for their communities and stakeholders. In recent years, the practice has become more specialised and sophisticated. This public engagement course online is the opportunity for managers and executives to... Find out more >
Social planning and community development bring together social, economic, environmental and cultural perspectives to effectively instigate and manage change with communities. This social planning and community development course will equip you with increased knowledge of the field, based firmly in theory and practice. Find out more >