Thought Bubbles – Episode 7

No Comments // Read More

This week I ask “When is it good to try to engage with the community at 5.30pm on a Friday evening?”

Thought Bubbles – Episode 6

No Comments // Read More

This week I answer a question from Rebecca in the UK. She asks “As a business wanting to engage with the community, how could you get involved and where would you start?”

Thought Bubbles – Episode 4

No Comments // Read More

This week I answer a question from Max Hardy around “Why do we bother promoting community engagement at all? Why do we think it is important?” – I’ll tell you why I think it is important for both the decision-maker and the community. Thanks Max!

Thought Bubbles – Episode 3

No Comments // Read More

In this episode I reflect on what it means to have a “sense of community” – when did you last feel like you “belong”?

Thought Bubbles – Episode 2

3 Comments // Read More

This week I reflect on the concept of Community Leadership.

Are community leaders amongst us, doing very subtle things to make a difference? Is leadership within the community different these days to the more traditional model of being elected in to representative positions? Have a listen to my non-scripted babble and let me know your thoughts on what community leadership is!

Thought Bubbles – Episode 1

No Comments // Read More

In this first (very rough cut) episode, I talk about what community engagement is (in a very brief nutshell) and some of the things I’ve noticed in the world of engagement since Becky Hirst Consulting was born 6 years ago!

Exploring Active Citizenship: CoCreate McLaren Vale

13 Comments // Read More

I’m ‘putting out there’ an idea to host a gathering called CoCreate McLaren Vale on a Sunday afternoon in October. Anyone who has an interest in continuing to make McLaren Vale the best possible place to live, work or play, would be invited to attend.

Nothing is set in concrete – everything is open to possibilities!

This blog article explains my thinking behind this idea, its purpose and its connections to CoCreate Adelaide and The Change Makers Festival. Please note this isn’t the official blurb – that will be much more succinct! I’ve written this blog as a way to share my thoughts with a number of key organisations and networks in the area and I’d love to know what you think!

I have two lives. One is my professional life where I work with numerous local and state Government organisations, advising them on how best to engage with communities in their decision making processes. The other is my personal life where I live in the beautiful McLaren Vale wine region.

That’s a lie actually – because I am doing more and more ‘professional’ business in McLaren Vale every day – both through my co-founding of a digital engagement business, Strawberry Woo and a very active blog and Facebook page called Winey Kids in McLaren Vale. I’m also volunteering my time to be a member of the board at the local community-run hospital as well as numerous initiatives that I get my arm twisted in to being involved with!

So what I should really say is that I have two lives – one being at the northern end of the Southern Expressway (which pays the majority of the bills) and the other being at the southern end! What’s important to note though is that whilst I’m an advocate for active citizenship and community engagement, I haven’t been particularly involved in delivering any of my professional “engagement in decision-making” work in my own ‘hood.

Having owned land, built a house in, lived and played in the McLaren Vale region for just over 7 years (I’m still very much a newcomer), I’ve made a few observations along the way. The most obvious observation is just how much delicious wine is made here. The other observation, and the one I’m blogging about right now, is that there are so many opportunities within our community. There is SO much happening here and so many people are working on exciting projects that really are putting McLaren Vale on the map!

I want to bring everyone together to have a conversation about the potential for our community.

Whilst most people know the McLaren Vale region for its delicious food and wine, it’s also a place where people live, invest in, work in, commute to, commute from, choose to bring their children up, go to school, require health services, set up businesses, inherit businesses, visit on holiday… the list goes on! Our primary industry here is agriculture, most notably grape growing, but like in a game of Sim City, any core industry comes with a whole infrastructure to surround it. Add to that growth over the years and the make up of this community has shifted to include more weekday commuters to and from Adelaide, new business owners, investors and a need for more services, all mixed in with a community that has been here for many many generations.

This is what I most love about communities – their intricate make up of so many essential wheels in the clog! One wouldn’t exist without the other! From fostering and facilitating partnership working in the UK back in the late nineties and early 2000’s, through to the recent shift to an emphasis on co-design and collaboration here in South Australia, I’ve got a real passion for fostering forward thinking through working together.

No community is ever complete. It is forever evolving.

Having told you about life in the Vale, I’d like you to join me on a journey to the ‘other end’ of the Southern Expressway and I’ll tell you about a project I was involved with last year. CoCreate Adelaide, largely driven by my friend and engagement colleague John Baxter, was a concept based on the theory that by networking with other citizens with common passions, connecting to new resources and seeking inspiration and ideas, we are better able to cocreate the world we want to live in.

Good community engagement is no longer always just about the Government seeking input on their predetermined ideas. Instead it’s about community working together to identify their own needs and aspirations. And then working out who is in the best position to deliver those aspirations – whether that be within the community itself, through community organisations or by Government – or something in between.

I was involved in co-facilitating the first CoCreate Adelaide event which brought together around 60 passionate people for the day in a disused warehouse just west of Adelaide. No agenda was set prior to anyone arriving. Participants arrived, and after being welcomed, were handed the task of setting the agenda for the day. The facilitation technique used was Open Space Technology, a technique I’ve used on numerous occasions and in numerous settings. It’s a really great way of facilitating conversations about things that REALLY matter to people – because they are the ones who decide what to talk about!

So you can see where this is going, right?

John Baxter and I are working together to explore how the CoCreate Adelaide approach can be used in specific locations. On the same weekend in October (date and venue to be confirmed, but looking likely to be Sunday 19 October), John will run a CoCreate event in the Central ward (Adelaide CBD) and I propose to run an event here in the Wine Coast ward, within the City of Onkaparinga.

As an ‘active citizen’ who happens to (allegedly) have some skills around engaging communities, I want to bring this approach of bringing a variety of people in to a space and letting them set the agenda to my own community. I want to pull all the people, businesses and organisations I have contact with individually in to one space for a few hours. I want to facilitate a process which enables potentially important conversations to take place about the future direction of the region in which we live. No predetermined, hidden agendas.

What excites me most is the prospect of bringing together people from different sectors within our community to talk to each other, share with each other, learn from each other.

I’ll be contacting everyone I know in the area, and asking them to contact everyone they know. My immediate contacts already include people within education, health, the wine industry, agriculture, tourism, sustainability, small business, local Government, community groups and maybe even a few commuters! I’ll use the power of word of mouth, formal invites, local Facebook groups, and other peoples contact lists to help spread the word.

Just to add a further dimension to this exciting project, John and I not only want to facilitate these grass-roots conversations amongst the community, but we want to undertake them as part of the run up to the local Government elections to be held in November. We’ll be contacting candidates who are running for Council to come along to the event to hear first hand what the community are passionate about. All too often, the connection between the local members who represent communities and the communities themselves can become distant or irrelevant. We want to trial this approach of taking positive action to integrate the election process in to the heart of the community.

John and I have spoken with some community development staff from the City of Onkaparinga who love the idea of this style of grass-roots initiative. We’ve got a whole list of people to now contact to talk to about this idea. Part of the reason for me writing this blog is to have my thoughts documented in one spot which I can refer people to as I contact them to see what they think!

So. I’d love to know your thoughts about this idea in the comments section below. I’ll be honest that it’s another venture that I’m considering taking on which gives me butterflies! It’s risky to try new things where you live – especially when you want to live there for a long time yet! This isn’t just my professional reputation on the line, it’s my personal one too.

What’s in it for me? It’s a great professional development opportunity for me and my community engagement skills. It will give me a great ‘case study’ of using this approach and I’ll look forward to being able to compare how CoCreate McLaren Vale runs in comparison to the one held in the CBD. It’s also an interesting ‘experiment’ to bring local Government candidates in to a process being led by the community.

But more importantly, it’s using those skills to invest in a place which I call home. A place which I love. A place which I know others love too.

If you are interested in keeping informed about CoCreate McLaren Vale, please sign up to the mailing list here.

Reflections of a Kitchen Table Conference

No Comments // Read More

Back in October 2013 I conceived an idea that it would be good to host a “Kitchen Table Conference” in my home. It was a concept I came up with during an hour drive from my home in the McLaren Vale wine region, to meet with colleagues in Adelaide. I wrote up my musings at the time, but it took me a while to pull together the courage to go through with it!

9 months later, along with my Engage2Act colleagues, I hosted 33 people in my home for a day of storytelling, dialogue and even a touch of place-making around the piano. I am writing this blog to reflect on the process. And to tell you what a great time I had!

I’d wanted to arrange some kind of ‘showcase’ event for stories of community engagement over the course of a day, but knew I wanted to keep the cost low to enable participation from a diverse group of people. My house is fairly open plan and it dawned on me that I’d happily host friends for a summer bbq, or a mid-winter Sunday lunch, so why wouldn’t I open it up for a group of work colleagues?

The more I thought about it, the more I loved the idea of hosting a conference about community engagement at my home. In the world of involving communities in Government decision-making processes, we all too often refer to the community as if they are another breed or species – when actually we are ALL community! I loved the idea that I could provide a homely, warm and welcoming environment to enable professionals working in the community engagement sector to find their inner-Citizen! As it turns out, they didn’t take much convincing. People arrived at my front door as if they were old friends coming for lunch. I’d say there was a ‘smart casual’ atmosphere both in dress and attitude. Compared to a ‘normal’ conference environment, I immediately noticed how everyone instantly connected, there was very limited ‘awkwardness’ and a lot of excitement in the house!

Kitchen Table Conference

On arrival, people grabbed a name tag (ok ok, it was called a conference so we needed some formality – and I have been known to name tag my guests at social functions too!) and collected their coffee order which was made for them by the fabulous owners of our local bakery who’d set up a portable coffee machine in the kitchen! Thanks to the clever tools of Eventbrite, I’d been able to collect coffee orders as people bought their tickets which helped things run really smoothly!

We kicked things off with a welcome which consisted of me standing on the little step ladder my daughter normally uses for brushing her teeth! One of my local Elected Members, and Deputy Mayor Councillor Gail Kilby gave an official welcome – but note that she’d bought a ticket to attend prior to me asking her to do this! There was something really nice in knowing that the official dignitary doing the welcome, genuinely WANTED to be there!

I’d planned to do some speed networking as part of the warm up but sensed by the high energy in the room that this wasn’t necessary. The energy was already high. People were already networking. One piece of feedback I heard after the event was that everyone didn’t get to meet everyone, and some kind of facilitated networking activity would have helped this BUT it just didn’t feel right to force things in this relaxed, homely environment.

The conference attracted almost a carbon copy of Engage2Act’s definition of people interested in citizen engagement – motivated citizens, engagement practitioners, community group representatives, students, government, and private sector. I was proud that by offering both a corporate rate ($65) and a community rate ($15) we were able to diversify engagement. As with all Engage2Act events, this was a not-for-profit event with the money we received from ticket sales being spent on the lunch, coffee, fruit, drinks, a printer cartridge (I like signs!) and getting my house cleaned the day before!

As the local caterers, Studio Voodoo, arrived and began preparing our 100% vegan and low Gluten lunch (tip: Save time in dealing with dietary requirements when arranging a conference – just make the whole conference vegan and gluten free!), the stories began. When I put out a call for storytellers earlier in the year, I had 8 people come forward so I decided to run 4 stories in the morning, and 4 in the afternoon. Everyone gathered around in small groups – in the play room (a perfect setting for a story about a breastfeeding consultation, with a 9-month old present!), around the piano, in the lounge room and of course, around the kitchen table.

It occurred to me that I hadn’t ‘vetted’ any of the stories that were going to be told. I didn’t know anything about the quality of the stories, the style of the presenters, or most importantly the quality of the community engagement that was to be shared. It was a big risk but I was comforted that even the biggest corporate money-making conferences don’t vet their speakers or stories – and they charge a fortune to attend! And anyway, who am I to judge whether someone’s story is any good or not?

2What I instantly noticed was the intensity of the conversations that were occurring. The speakers had been briefed that PowerPoint was strictly banned and that things would be very informal. They would tell their story and open up the conversation. People could tell their own stories too. This worked well – and the variety of styles the storytellers brought to the process was refreshing. I loved seeing people lying on the rugs, sitting back on the sofa, putting the kettle on, moving furniture around – making themselves at home.

Over lunch (on the day named as the best conference lunch, ever – a sandwich free event) the conversation continued. Some conversations were about community engagement, others were just about life in general! People spread themselves out around the house and even enjoyed a glass of local wine along with their good conversation. When in Rome and all that!

The afternoon continued with equal gusto and enthusiasm from both storytellers and participants. By the end of the day, participants had had the opportunity to hear about citizen engagement relating to a breastfeeding project, Marine Parks, Deep Creek Conservation Park, rail revitalisation, place-making and participatory budgeting, community development in Darwin, tram lines, and co-design examples. Yes, this conference was in my house. Yes, it was fun. But the quality of the stories shared rivalled any corporate conference in our sector.

We had a dedicated social media ‘tweeter’ for the day (thank you Andrew) who kept the flow of events happening online. The conversations attracted a few gate-hashers (where you follow the hashtag of a conference from a location other than at the conference) and I was able to stream the #engage2act tweets via the TV for all to see. Being one of the lucky few in the country to have the NBN at our house (and home office), we were able to provide free, fast wi-fi to conference attendees via a dedicated network. I also set up a ‘charging station’ for iPhones that lost energy during the day!

Kitchen Table ConferenceWe ended the conference with a quick gathering around the kitchen bench top where everyone was asked to write down the ONE thing that the successful community engagement activity they’d heard about had in common. As a group we then attempted to sort them in to themes – and there were similarities of thought emerging. But this activity was short-lived as I realised it wasn’t essential to round things up in a neat and orderly fashion and declared the conference closed and that it was time to move to a winery for a tasting!

Around 90% of conference delegates joined the car convoy to McLaren Vale Winemakers where we were treated to a group wine tasting and talk from the winemaker, whilst our conversations continued. People told me they’d had a great day, new connections were made, some felt inspired and all sorts of new ideas were being talked about.

So all in all, it was a success. I planned to send out an evaluation form after the conference but my inner-citizen told me not to. Instead I’ll measure the success on the smiles I saw at my kitchen table, the flowing conversations, the follow up projects that are occurring and the tired but happy look on conference delegates faces as they left in their car-shares back to the City.

I’d happily repeat this experience but am not sure I want to. There’s something cool about having a go at something and that being that. It was great. But I don’t expect to now make a thing of this Kitchen Table Conference concept. But it has opened my eyes to ideas of putting ourselves in different environments as part of our working lives as a way of keeping things fresh, innovative and inspiring.

My inner-Citizen is telling me she wants a BBQ at the beach next!

Are you ready for your Citizens’ Jury duty?

No Comments // Read More

Many years ago I remember running some community engagement training in South Australia (SA) where we talked about tools and techniques for engaging communities in decision-making. We covered everything from surveys, site tours, world cafes, open space, interviews, and at the time, probably glimmers of online engagement.

I distinctly remember teaching the participants about the concept of a Citizens’ Jury. A Citizens’ Jury is an engagement tool whereby participants are randomly selected ‘every day’ people and they are able to cross-question ‘expert witnesses’ to provide different perspectives on the topic to collectively produce a summary of their conclusions, typically in a short report. As an engagement practitioner I loved the concept, but at the time it was quite remote to my public sector trainees. I even remember a few giggles and mutterings along the lines of ‘that’ll never happen’!

So you can only imagine my delight when I heard the news that Premier Jay Weatherill commissioned the services of the newDemocracy Foundation to run a Citizens’ Jury to answer the question “How can we ensure we have a vibrant and safe Adelaide nightlife?”.

The process has been fascinating to watch unfold. I’ve loved hearing that the jury is ‘sitting’ over various weekends. There have been some great video summaries along the way and I’ve felt inspired to know that a group of randomly selected people were taking the time to consider an important local issue in great depth, with the support of a team of people able to pull on ‘experts’ to provide ‘evidence’ as necessary. It was particularly assuring to know that the random selection process focussed on achieving a good cross-representation of the community. There are no squeaky wheels here!

I should warn you however that I have already gained a bit of a reputation for rolling my eyes when I hear the words “Citizens’ Jury” in SA. It’s a similar eye roll when I hear the words “Food truck”. I love and support both concepts with an absolute passion. But we do have a bit of a tendency here in SA to jump on the latest bandwagon without first asking if its the right engagement tool for the situation.

Before we decide what tool to use, I can’t emphasise enough that we need to first determine so many factors including identifying our key stakeholders; identifying the decision that needs to be made, or problem solved; what value engagement with the community will add to our process; risk identification; and so on. In my opinion, choosing the tool or technique for the job comes secondary in the planning process.

On this occasion the Citizens’ Jury was definitely the right tool for the job and you can read their final report here.

Some recent ‘hot’ SA topics that I think a Jury process could have worked beautifully on are –

– Urban sprawl versus higher density living – as part of the 30 Year Plan for Greater Adelaide it would have been great to include some specific work with a Jury around some of these really difficult topics that caused a high level of concern and outrage within affected communities

– The great Royal Adelaide Hospital debate – renovate the existing location or build a new hospital (The Government opted for the latter)

– Rezoning of open space in places such as St Clair

These are what I call the ‘meaty’ topics that really need some heavy-weight engagement processes in place. The engagement needs to be in-depth, transparent, representative and considered. A Jury is a perfect tool.

So as we prepare for a flurry of Jury processes across the state, let’s embrace this exciting new era of engagement. I’m confident this won’t be the last Citizens’ Jury we see here in Adelaide. As my eyes roll, don’t confuse my apathy with my elation that finally we are starting to see some incredibly cool engagement.

But please. If I hear you suggest a Citizens’ Jury to decide which Food Truck we’re going to have lunch at today, I can’t be held responsible for my actions.


6 Comments // Read More

It is Tuesday afternoon at Council, much like any other. An email arrives.


72pt Times New Roman. Red. Following this surprise introduction are multiple paragraphs of emotional outrage.

We build resilience to these situations after a time, but we are all only human. Being on the receiving end of these kinds of communications, again and again, can just plain get you down.

In emotionally charged engagement projects rumours and hearsay spread through local communities like wildfire (in the absence of information, misinformation flourishes people!), but that is a whole other blog post. I would instead like to briefly dwell on the changing nature of communications in engagement projects today.

A conversation includes far more than just words. Emphasis, body language and facial expression (to name just a few things) also play a vital role in how we communicate and more importantly how we emotionally interpret information.

By being a step removed from the communications receiver, does the writer feel a step removed from being accountable for their words?

There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the depersonalisation and de-emotionalisation (yes I made that word up) associated with electronic text based communications has led to a significant shift in people’s communication behaviours. SMS, forums and email even have their own languages associated with them these days. The potential for misinterpretation, instant nature and permanency of electronic communications can sometimes get us into trouble.

Back to “take your consultation and shove it!” So how does one deal with being on the receiving end of these troll like communications?

My advice is, personalise it!

1. Don’t reply to the email

An escalating emotional email ping pong match will generally only to grow the tension. Email communications leave too much space areas for misinterpretation and possibly fuel outrage.

2. Ring them up

When you call someone you are a person, no longer a faceless official. You are also demonstrating that you genuinely want to understand the issue at hand and the reasons behind the emotion. Personalised contact will often take the heat out of a charged situation.

3. Have a conversation

A conversation is a two way exchange of information, more often than not a polite one. In my experience emotional emails are often due to misunderstanding and misinformation. Take the time to discuss real project information. Perhaps it is you with the misinformation and misunderstanding.

4. Develop the relationship

Motivated people are of great value to an engagement project. An outspoken person can become your key local community liaison or even your greatest project advocate. Fostering good relationships with community members is a much underrated mutually beneficial scenario. Social capital is a beautiful thing!

Thank you for listening!

Valli works in Local Government as a Community Engagement Coordinator. She is a recently retired rollergirl and believes that: “In order to fly, all one must do is simply miss the ground” (Douglas Adams).