Failure is something we all struggle with. I’ve been inspired to write something on this topic after reading a blog post by Matthew Law, a Lecturer in Geography (Environmental Change) at Bath Spa University, UK. His post titled ‘Let’s talk about failure’ highlighted his experiences of public engagement. The difference in his post, from the many others I read on the topic of public engagement, was that it took a cold hard look at where and when things go wrong. He’s right to say that we learn from our mistakes so I’ve decided to take up his invitation to write a post on the same topic.
The feelings I have from the first time I remember ‘failing’ haunt me to this day. I must have been 6 or 7 and I had some homework returned to me. It had been a writing exercise and happened to be on the first page of a new work book – the page that MUST be immaculately neat if you have any hint of OCD in you. And there in RED biro was a SAD face accompanied by the words “See Me”. I felt sick to my stomach. I have no idea what happened after that. Knowing me, I probably found a positive twist on the situation and moved swiftly on!
Failure is a difficult thing to admit to. The confident go-getters amongst us have become conditioned to deal with failure in a short sharp fashion. We see it; we put a positive slant on it; we move on. This is especially true for me as a self confessed spin doctor. Throw ANYTHING at me and I’ll find a positive slant. The scariest thing is how convincing I am. I realised this in a team building day I took part in years ago when, on reflection of an exercise we’d all just undertaken, the trainer pointed out how convincing I had been to my peers – even though my solution to stopping the boat sinking was completely wrong! You have been warned!
Back to the point.
I’m proud to say that failure in my community engagement world doesn’t necessarily stem around no-one-came type scenarios. I tend to use approaches that mitigate that kind of risk. My failures tend to be more of the too-ambitious-we-just-aren’t-ready-to-operate-like-that kind. Yeah, that’s probably a positive twist on failure – but cut me some slack on this one! It’s therapy!
I migrated to Australia in 2007 and arrived full of anticipation, excitement… and ideas! I was ecstatic to be offered a Community Engagement Officer role in a local Council the day after I landed (I could write a whole article on interviewing with severe jet lag). Those who know my work will know which Council it was and it’s fairly obvious when you look at my resume, but there’s no need to name names on this occasion!
My main task was to prepare a Community Engagement Model for the Council. The model would include details such as what the Council defines community engagement as; who the community is defined as; why and when Council would engage; how the community have said they would like to become ‘engaged’. The Model would be submitted along with an ‘Implementation Plan’ to be approved by the Elected Members. A perfect scenario? Well…
On looking back, the first flaw in the grand plan was the positioning of the Community Engagement Officer within the organisation. Community Engagement is a cross-organisation topic and when the preparation of a Community Engagement Model is a priority for the organisation it is important the person leading that process has access to the right people who can offer the right support. The position I was employed in had a manager, who had a manager, who had a manager, who had a manager, who was accountable to the Mayor. This is all too familiar in local Government structuring and I know many reading this article will relate to the hierarchy but are still achieving great things. My problem was that for at least three people in that hierarchical structure, community engagement was a very new and unknown concept. This meant that many of the recommendations I made were in a very different format, if there at all, by the time they reached the people who needed to hear those recommendations.
Still, I got straight on with preparing some concepts to take out to the community. I set up a number of workshops and began some intensive networking. Around 20-30 people showed up at each workshop and I ran them ‘in the round’ to well and truly say goodbye to any dated public meeting style events. The workshops included open discussion and even trialled some Fishbowl Meeting style facilitation. As well as the meetings, I worked collaboratively with local community and resident groups to write the document. I didn’t undertake any online engagement as back in 2007 it wasn’t the trend in this part of the world (If only we’d known what was around the corner!). Some of my many managers came to the workshops, and perhaps a couple of Elected Members but that was it. The engagement process, in my eyes, was a complete success. I felt we had an end product that the community understood and were very clear how their influence had impacted on the outcome. The implementation plan included detailed suggestions for the type of thing Council might do – simple things like improving project based engagement; utilizing existing links with sporting clubs and businesses; establishing a community reference group; developing a community leader program; and establishing a Resident Feedback Panel.
But. On the run up to the new flashy Community Engagement Model and Implementation Plan being presented to Council for endorsement, rumours started to spread that several of the Elected Members were doing to oppose it. WHAT?! Oppose it?! This felt bizarre to me. WHY?! It turned out that the process I’d used of talking to and working closely and collaboratively with the community wasn’t necessarily the ‘norm’ in these parts. It turns out that the community weren’t the people I needed to work closely with throughout the process to gain an understanding of community engagement. It should have been the Elected Members! The opposers in question felt threatened. They had been elected to make decisions and asking the community for input in to decision making was not something they believed in.
Still, I; along with my manager; their manager; their manager and their manager decided to go ahead and submit the Model and Implementation Plan to Council’s City Services Committee for endorsement. The evening that was to become known in my career as a distinct low point!
The Model and Implementation plan were of great concern to the Elected Members, and particularly the Mayor. Again, those in local Government will know that a Council Chamber operates a bit like a court room. It’s not a friendly-let’s-have-a-chat environment. The Mayor, supported by a couple of Elected Members, publicly opposed my recommendations and to rub salt in to my wounds made personal references to the approach of the ‘said officer’. Hearing yourself referred to as the ‘said officer’ in an environment where you can’t say ‘err, excuse me if you are going to offend my work at least use my name!’ can be quite infuriating!
Our quick thinking (and notably fabulous) CEO quickly resolved the situation and got the Model through by simply suggesting that we remove the Implementation Plan. His motives were to get the principles approved so we could then work on developing something more tame. It worked. The Model was endorsed but not without a severe load of tears on my part as I left the public gallery! A couple of months later I resigned!
So to come back to the failure and summarize this therapy session, oh I mean blog article. My failure was to jump in to an organisation full of bright ideas and to not delve deep enough in to the nuts and bolts of the organisation. This has taught me so much. The organisation’s failure was to not consider the role, its positioning and support structure.
But there is of course a happy ending. The Council is question now implements some great engagement activity and the Community Engagement Model is still an active document, though likely to be in need of a review. I’ve done further work with the Council but now as a Consultant I leave my tears at the door and know to delve as deep as I am able to when advising on community engagement. After my departure, the position of Community Engagement Officer was regraded and repositioned within the organisation.
And best of all, a new Mayor was elected. What goes around comes around, and all that.