Barbara Chappell: Adelaide’s Culture of Alternatives

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Since Becky invited me to do a guest blog I have been reflecting on my personal experiences with community engagement of late. I am a bit conflicted at the moment but I know it has to do with the shifting space around community engagement and the direction it may be heading. So in keeping with Becky’s 5 – 10 themes approach here are THREE themes and the rest will have to wait for another blog:

  1. At a local level I sense the Adelaide culture of alternatives in response to exclusion is guiding community engagement in a direction that may increase public access. The right to participate and the right to chose what to participate in is what seems to be capturing people’s attention. Adelaide is famous for its “Fringe” events and although the Adelaide Fringe Festival is now funded by State Government, it was originally set up by people who believed in what they did and wanted everyone to have access to it. In another first for fringe events, Adelaide is hosting an “Engagement Party” to provide access to the engagement space for whoever chooses to enter it .  This speaks volumes about our culture and the need to respect the values that shape the way we participate.
  2. Community engagement in Adelaide is expanding beyond the realm of participation in decision making and community development. There is a growing expectation for participation in decision making because of the work being done in local government and more recently at a state government level. There is still a lot of work to do to increase access to decision making processes, but in the meantime the public are finding their own ways to determine how they want to live in Adelaide. People who have a deep connection to the practice of public participation are opening up access to whoever chooses to participate. Check out CoCreate Adelaide or Engage to Act or any of the community groups exploring participation in anything from community gardening and knitting to creating access for newly arrived migrants.
  3. While reflecting on the people who are driving this alternative access I was reminded of a paper written by Elena Faggota and Archon Fung titled “Sustaining Public Engagement, Embedding Deliberation in Public Engagement.  The paper describes the role of “Deliberative Entrepreneurs (DE)”, i.e. people who have the skills and knowledge to plant the seeds of community engagement practice to increase participation. The Deliberative Entrepreneurs described in the paper generally do this work as part of their mainline activities and that is what a number of Adelaide people are already doing. The challenge now is to maintain the promotion of public participation as a practice for the good of society rather than as a “business enterprise” or a new branch of bureaucracy for governments.

Now if that all sounds a bit too deep, maybe it’s because it is. With public participation comes the responsibility of really understanding what we are doing so we make better decisions.

Barbara Chappell is an experienced community engagement practitioner living and working in South Australia with an International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) license to train participants in public participation and emotion and outrage management. She holds a Masters of Conflict Management, a Diploma of Human Resource Management and a Certificate IV in Workplace Training and Assessment.  Barbara has a background in the development and implementation of community engagement framework models in local government.  

Dan Popping: 10 Ways To Embed Engagement Into Your Organisation

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Something very interesting is happening in Adelaide.

For engagement professionals like me, there’s seems to be a certain ‘buzz’ in the air. I’m not sure if it is excitement for the upcoming IAP2 conference to be held in Adelaide, the new local collective gaining momentum called ‘Engage2Act’ or the great work being undertaken by all levels of government to improve the way we make decisions with our communities. (Think State Government’s commitment – Better Together and Adelaide City Council’s – Engagement Strategy)

This ‘buzz’ however is not just about a new document or upcoming conference. Over the last few years I’ve seen a steady increase in the level of interest and commitment from organisations to improve the way they consult with their stakeholders and local communities.

It doesn’t really matter what your organisation is calling it (engagement, consultation, partnerships, collaboration, co-creation or place making) what really matters is that the time is right. It’s a great time to influence your organisation.

Change often starts from within, and many organisations in SA are working internally to build their understanding, capability and capacity to deliver meaningful engagement activities.

For those like me who are driving this change from within – it’s both challenging and exciting.

In the spirit of sharing, here are ten tips for building organisational capability and embedding engagement into your organisation.

1) Increase organisational awareness by using a range of communications tools. These can be guest speakers at a leadership event, monthly reports, an internal blog, staff induction, 1:1 mentoring or sharing a good news story over a shared lunch. Consider the uniqueness of your organisation and modify your tools to reach all teams, departments and staff.

2) Recruit your own team of Engagement Champions, especially if you work in a large organisation. Focus your 1:1 training and support to key staff who are self-motivated or have been nominated by senior management. Your champions will work with their respective teams to educate and identify approaches that are suited to achieve their outcomes.

3) Deliver staff training and provide ‘engagement ‘101’ sessions for your organisation. Place emphasis on your overarching engagement principles as well as practical ways to plan for engagement activities. I have found that using a real life project to complete a ‘Project Engagement Strategy’ enables staff to see how important the planning stage is.

4) Develop a Corporate Brand for all your engagement opportunities. This will provide a consistent look and feel for all your engagement projects, whilst providing a standard ‘call to action’ so when people see it, they immediately know they can get involved and influence an important  decision.

5) Design a flexible engagement process that supports the widest variety of projects that your organisation undertakes.  Engagement is complex and will be different for each project. Break it down into stages or a step by step approach (eg Plan, Do, Report) so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming to follow.

6) Develop a range of staff resources to support the planning, delivery and reporting of engagement activities. Not sure what they need – well why not ask them? I have found that an engagement planning template, staff guides and toolkits (methods) are likely to be requested.

7) Provide a variety of online opportunities for feedback by a creating a dedicated place on your website or with an ‘off the shelf’ engagement platform. It will improve transparency in your processes, allow you to report back final decisions and provide the potential to re-engage participants on other decisions important to them.

8) Build an internal ‘one-stop-shop’ intranet site which outlines your new engagement process, staff resources, training dates and an engagement planning calendar. You and your champions can build this site over time to include other things like new resources, case studies and best practice examples.

9) Provide ongoing project support, but focus your energy during the planning stage. Planning is where you will have the greatest level influence to ensure engagement is meaningful and robust. Don’t forget that each time you provide support it’s an opportunity to educate staff and  build their confidence and capacity.

10) Celebrate and share your success stories internally via case studies and lunchbox sessions. Leverage projects that went well or had positive outcomes by curating them a case study and/or hosting a casual discussion over lunch with your champions. You will be surprised how much an informal chat can draw our key learnings for your organisation.

Don’t forget that each organisation is unique and different, and so will your engagement journey. I hope these tips have given you a few ideas of how to embed engagement into your organisation.

What tip do you like and do you have any others to share?

Happy travelling, Dan.

Dan Popping is the Community Engagement Officer at Adelaide City Council.


Top 10 Quotes on Community Engagement in South Australia: Community Alliance SA

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After the Community Alliance formed, our many member groups spent a lot of time, and used a lot of butchers’ paper, coming up with what we call our ‘Platform for Change’.  It included statements on the reforms and processes we want in order to bring about genuine community engagement, such as “Community Alliance SA is calling for reform based on a genuine partnership between communities, government and the development sector” and “Our goal is the establishment of a planning and development system that engages all parties in an open, transparent, accountable and sustainable process from the initial design concept through to implementation”.

The two of us recently attended a ‘Stakeholder Engagement’ workshop held by Becky Hirst.  This helped us to understand how a good engagement process works.  One of the most exciting aspects of being part of this workshop was that we were representatives of the ‘other side’, members of the actual community that governmental bodies need to engage with.

Of everything we learnt from Becky, the most crucial and informative was the description of the different levels of engagement from informing, consulting, involving and collaborating to empowering.

This and the other knowledge we gained will help us to better focus on the kind of engagement required and will, of course, help us advocate for what we and our group members want!  The workshop also helped us understand the difficulties involved in carrying out really good engagement practices.

The Community Alliance recently held a public forum on the planning and development system in South Australia.  We were heartened by the recognition so many of the politicians and experts gave to the need to involve and truly engage the community. These are our top ten quotes on community engagement from the forum (in no particular order) –

1. “Communities need to be informed and engaged so that they can in turn inform and engage government”
Nick Xenophon, Independent Federal Senator

2. “Rob Crocker (Secretary of the Community Alliance SA), and all of the Alliance, I would like to recognise you for being so passionate about people and place”
Vickie Chapman MP, Deputy Leader Liberal Party and Shadow Planning Minister

3. “Respectful engagement with local people can lead to a better outcomes and is a fundamental part of our democracy.  These are decisions that affect your lives and your neighbourhoods”.
Mark Parnell MLC, Parliamentary Leader Greens SA

4. “I do think it is critical that we find a way to ensure communities are more embedded in the (planning) process and I do agree with this objective”
John Rau MP, Deputy Premier and Minister for Planning

5. “The current system of public consultation is terribly inadequate.  There is a lack of genuine public engagement”.
Prof Rob Fowler, President Conservation Council SA

6. “You have to engage the public from day one”.
Kevin O’Leary, Adelaide-based planning expert

7. “Engagement is one of the areas that we would love to do more work in…..that is one of the reasons we are here tonight”.
John Hanlon, Chief Executive, Dept Planning Transport & Infrastructure

8. “I am all in favour of conflict.  Unless you listen to dissenting voices and what they are saying, we are not going to achieve the outcomes that South Australia deserves”.
Dr Iris Iwanicki, President Planning Institute of Australia SA

9. “You will not get an engaged public unless you give options.  This is a fundamental ingredient of a good planning document”.
Kevin O’Leary, Adelaide-based planning expert 

10. “The best way to address social planning is to sit in the community space and listen”.
Dr Iris Iwanicki, President Planning Institute of Australia SA

With a good engagement process…..we can ‘put the people back into planning and development’.

Helen and Tom

Helen Wilmore is Treasurer and Tom Matthews is President of the Community Alliance SA, an umbrella organisation representing resident and community groups dedicated to ‘Putting the People back into Planning and Development’. Our goal is a planning and development process that is accountable, transparent and sustainable, and that guarantees genuine community consultation.

Obituary: Have Your Say, 2008-2013

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I was thrilled that my recent post about empowering communities received such positive and welcoming responses, particularly within the IAP2 Australasia LinkedIn group.  Some 45 comments later, I have been left inspired by a suggestion from Fran Woodruff that the term “Have Your Say” is dead!

It’s a phrase that has really boomed during the last 5 or so years and you could certainly say that it has become a bit of a trend. Just a simple Google search of the phrase brings up pages and pages of ‘decision-makers’ using the phrase alongside their engagement activity (I stopped scrolling at page 30, but it look to continues on and on). It’s a phrase that makes sense and to be fair has brought about a much clearer marketing and communications message to promote the opportunity to get involved in civic life.

But what has really changed? Has this boom in using catchy phrases seen any greater public influence over Government decision making? Sure, the numbers are probably slightly higher but that is probably more likely due to an increase in online engagement during the same time period which has broadened (slightly) the number of people able to ‘have their say’. I checked out Google Trends for the worldwide popularity of the phrase ‘Have your say’ from 2004 until now and there’s quite a clear growth pattern!

Have your say

In reflecting on the over use of the phase, Barbara Chappell said that she has long been irritated by the phrase. Quite rightly, she sees it as an ‘out’ for decision makers and a dead end for community members. So you have had your say and then what?… Barbara wants to see the shift from a parent-child relationship between Government and community to an adult-adult relationship. Hear hear!

The questions we need to ask are whether we are hearing that communities are connecting better with Government? Are we witnessing communities being heard by decision-makers once they’ve ‘had their say’? Are we seeing better, more sustainable decisions being made by Government? Hmm… I’m not so sure. What do you think?

As for me, I’m out. No more “Have your say” here. It has developed a reputation for being over used and under delivered. It’s officially banned.

Long may it rest in peace.

Dr Wendy Sarkissian: Top 10 guiding principles for community engagement

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Effective and responsible community engagement requires careful monitoring of the professional ethics of a process.

Some guiding principles can help, in my experience.

1. Distinguishing between community engagement and communication.

THIS MEANS: Making a clear distinction between the work of public relations, communication and marketing personnel and those undertaking community engagement processes and not allowing a “PR” approach to dominate approaches.

2. Reaching and engaging hard-to-reach groups and individuals.

THIS MEANS: Developing specific approaches to target hard-to-reach and marginalised groups (older people, people with disability, Indigenous people, young people, members of CaLD [culturally and linguistically diverse] communities, isolated and/or rural residents….) and monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of those approaches.

3. Encouraging and resourcing sustainability debates.

THIS MEANS: Actively pursuing community education and capacity-strengthening to offer local people genuine opportunities to explore the implications of sustainability agendas and develop an interest in exploring options they might not have previously considered. Helping local people understand the implications of the discourses about sustainability and growth issues and building community capacity about options.

4. Addressing issues of cultural diversity by actively engaging culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) communities.

THIS MEANS: Finding ways to target non-English-speaking and other cultural groups and build bridges between and among cultural groups to open up a community conversation about options. This has significant resource implications in terms of translation and interpretation of all processes. Processes employed with non-English speakers must not be seen as abbreviated or lesser than processes for English-speaking community members.

5. Intergenerational participation: involving children and young people.


– Developing discrete, creative, tested and appropriate ways to engage children (up to 18 years) and young people (up to mid-twenties) and incorporating the results of those engagement processes into reports. This will require a deep understanding of evidence-based research on effective engagement with children and young people.

– Helping adults understand the wisdom of children and young people and ensuring that their contributions are treated with respect are key considerations.

6. Governance and influence: ensure that community engagement outcomes are actually fed into planning and design processes and that participants can track voice and influence.

THIS MEANS: An integrated processes that clearly indicates when and how community information and opinions will be taken into account to influence decisions at key target dates and deadlines. Feedback loops and governance structures established so that community members can see how their views are being taken into account and track their influence and voice.

7. Representativeness and tracking of community engagement activities and successes.

THIS MEANS: Ensuring that participants are representative of the wider community; developing and using deliberative democracy and other emerging processes that enhance representativeness; regular monitoring of representativeness issues and including ways to increase representativeness.

8. Relationships between and among various advisory groups, servicing and governance structures.

THIS MEANS: Developing clear draft terms of reference for each advisory group, including draft working protocols, assisting groups in refining these terms of reference and protocols and establishing clear reporting and liaison relationships between those groups and the project management, the ongoing community engagement strategy, as well as between those groups.

9. Tempo: managing timing, delays and budget implications.

THIS MEANS: Finding ways to maintain community interest and involvement over a long period, perhaps by tying processes to established community events and activities. Whatever processes are used to maintain pace and tempo, they must not smack of “tokenism” and must be related to real target dates and deliverables.

10. Evaluation proposals for community engagement.

THIS MEANS: Creation and maintenance of clear evaluation frameworks for the community engagement. In particular:

– Regular summaries of evaluation outcomes to enable ongoing feedback and monitoring (formative evaluation); and

– Clear processes for responding to the results of evaluation processes (summative evaluation).

Born in mid-winter in a freezing mining town in northern Canada, Wendy Sarkissian had the good sense – or good fortune — at 25, to migrate to Australia. Having spent almost all of her working life in Australia, she is a planner who specializes in social planning, housing density and community engagement. She has coauthored three new books: Kitchen Table Sustainability: Practical Recipes for Community Engagement with Sustainability, SpeakOut, and Creative Community Planning. She is also co-author of an award-winning book on medium-density housing design, Housing as if People Mattered: Illustrated Site-Design Guidelines for Medium-Density Family Housing. Wendy holds a doctorate in environmental ethics from Murdoch University and a Masters of Town Planning from Adelaide University. She is a Life Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia and an Adjunct Professor at Bond University’s School of Sustainable Development. An exhausted but nevertheless enthusiastic owner-builder, Wendy lives with her husband in an eco-village in Nimbin. She is currently writing a novel about a developer in Vancouver who accidentally becomes the owner of a piece of flood-prone coastal land with warring neighbours, native land claims and complex politics.

Max Hardy: Top 10 hints for good collaboration

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It’s hard to believe how many people are talking the ‘co’-talk. But are they walking it?

Last year we published our book ‘The Power of Co’ and thought we were using a ‘newish’ term, but the terms collaborate, co-design and co-create seem to be all pervasive lately. I’d love to think we are partly responsible, but of course it’s more than that. Everyone knows we are facing some really tough challenges and we need to work and think differently to respond to them. So ‘co’ words are becoming fashionable, but can we keep it real, rather than merely using the rhetoric of the day?

Becky has invited me to share my top ten hints to collaborate well. So here goes.

If you are going to collaborate effectively you need to be:

1.  …  open to a new solution. If you think you have the answer already and you just want to convince others how clever you are, you are marketing and not collaborating.

2.  … willing to work with people who think and see things differently to you. Innovation and creativity comes from diversity. If you want to play it safe and only work with the people who think like you, or who usually agree with your point of view, you are not ready to collaborate.

3…. less preoccupied with being ‘in control’. Innovative solutions invariably come from messiness, and from letting go. When you overly manage, you take ownership away from those you are working with. Ironically, when you share responsibility you may find that things actual get less ‘out of control’.

4. …willing to fail. This means, if you are not prepared to take any risks you are unlikely to get value from the collaboration. Successful collaboration results from people trying new things, and learning as we go. As Dave Snowden says, in the complex domain you need safe to fail experiments and to learn quickly. Amplify what is working and withdraw resources from things that are not working. It’s about emergent practice.

5. … prepared to co-define what you are collaborating over. Identifying really good questions in itself is part of the answer. When collaborators co-develop the questions there is much more commitment to collectively finding a solution.

6. … prepared to co-design how you will work together. When a single organisation designs the process and invites other to play they are automatically putting themselves in a more powerful position than others. When you design the process together, power is shared. Different ideas are valued. The players are more inclined to commit to a process they have developed.

7. … willing to re-invent the wheel. When people urge others not to reinvent the wheel they assume because something has worked well in one situation will surely work in another situation. They overlook the fact that what makes something work is the inventing process. Solutions are enduring when people invent a solution. Implementing someone else’s solution is not fun and we are inclined to bring it undone because it is not ours!

8. … willing to not hold back. Appreciating what others offer is really important. So too is being willing to value and share what you have to bring. Don’t deprive the collaborative effort of your skills, stories and knowledge. They are needed too!

9. … focused on a purpose that everyone values. It can’t just be yours. Being purpose driven means that some of the unpleasant and challenging stuff that happens along the way will not make you fall. Sometimes people behave badly, are unfair, are non-appreciative, and can bring others down. We are all capable of that. There is something about the ultimate reason for collaborating that can pull us through the difficult times. When we focus and believe in the merit of great collective thinking we are more inclined to be generous, appreciative, inquisitive, and just as importantly, resilient.

10. … willing to admit what you don’t now. I think I only have 9 points and can’t think of another right now. Collaboration means we need to be honest about our limitations. Maybe that is a tenth point after all!

If you want to learn about the Twyfords collaborative governance framework and 5 step model click here to book on to a workshop

As a Director at Twyfords, our guest blogger Max Hardy provides high level consulting services to organisations to build their capability to collaborate and engage with their communities and stakeholders. With a particular interest in Deliberative Democracy and Appreciative Inquiry, Max has developed innovative models for community engagement covering a range of projects, especially those with a health and  community planning emphasis.


What if the community became the decision-makers?

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It’s almost a week since the CoCreate Adelaide gathering and I’m still feeling warm and fuzzy from seeing such a great group of motivated individuals come together to identify things from within their community that they would like to develop, enhance, or change.

It wasn’t just a talk shop – this was a group of people who were willing to chip in together to make real changes. Hearing exchanges of solutions such as “I need a space to set up a hub” quickly followed by “I’ve got a space you can use” highlighted to me the potential for change to occur that is led by the community; happens at a quick pace that is so unfamiliar to our bureaucrat-led society; and is undertaken on a shoestring budget, if any budget at all. It reminded me a lot of David Engwicht and the messages he preaches through Creative Communities.

Having spent several years working with Government organisations in helping them to engage with the community, from my clients perspectives it has often felt like pulling hens teeth (whatever that might mean) to get members of the public engaged in their decision making processes. So you can only imagine my amazement as the team behind CoCreate Adelaide gathered 60 individuals in a dirty, disused warehouse on a Saturday morning – charged them $10 to be there and asked them to buy their own lunch! Whatever comes as an outcome of CoCreate Adelaide, there is without a doubt, something to be learned from this approach of bringing together like-minded, passionate people! Free lunches aren’t what brings people together! That’s a whole separate blog post and it’s on the to do list.

This space of community-led activity felt like home for me. This is where I began and a space I love. I often talk of the early-Blair years in which my career began – the years of social inclusion and community development. I love seeing people realise their own potential and become empowered to act on that potential. I love the sense of ownership and belonging that this brings to someone about the community in which they live.

A conversation with a fellow engagement practitioner who works for a traditional decision-making Government organisation at CoCreate Adelaide (yes, a plain-clothed public servant or two were amongst us) led me to pondering on how this approach had the potential to completely flip something such as the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation on its head! I’m a huge fan on the spectrum and use it in the majority of my client-based work. It really helps traditional engagement processes to be transparent and succinct in the level to which they engage with impacted stakeholders. It is written from the perspective that the decision-maker is the one who engages with the community. In this instance (and generally in my work) the decision-maker is the Government.

But what if the community became the decision-maker? And the Government be the one who is on the receiving end of engagement? I’ve created the above graphic to explore the type of promises that the community could make to the Government in this situation. As I explored this idea of putting the community in the centre of the process, I realised that this would make the spectrum of engagement BEGIN with empowered communities. How to begin with an empowered community? Well, that’s another blog post and it’s also on the to do list.

The community would then determine the level to which it wants and needs to engage with the Government. Collaborate gets my vote.

Don’t get me wrong on any of this, I’m not anti Government and I’m not suggesting we can take a community-led approach without Government. What I am suggesting is that we stop talking about the community as ‘them out there’ and challenge ourselves to think outside of the models of community engagement that we’ve all become so accustomed to. Government as decision-makers are not the be all and end all.

Each and everyone of us has the potential to be a fully-fledged decision maker.

I would love to know your thoughts.

A Citizen-Centric Approach – Are we ready?

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It was Chinese philosopher Confucius who in 450BC wisely said “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand”.

It was Abraham Lincoln in 1863 who talked of a “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

Most recently, it was Barack Obama who suggested “We don’t ask you to believe in our ability to bring change, rather, we ask you to believe in yours.”

The theory of involving people in decision-making that affects them is certainly not a new concept. But yet here we are in 2013 still preaching the citizen-centric approach! To be fair on all of us, whilst the concept has been around for thousands of years from my observations of the ‘western world’, we are finding ourselves coming out of a couple of decades where the focus has become incredibly Government-centric, or organisation-centric as shown in the graphic above.  This time saw processes becoming centred around the programs and services of the organisation; kept tightly in check by policy, procedure and legislation. And all of the above were of course held close to the hearts of many a decision-maker, manager, executive or elected representative. ‘People’ didn’t feature in the process other than being the receiver of the end program or service.

It brings me great pleasure however to see that a citizen-centric approach is on the radar of many a public servant. I’m also seeing more and more desire from citizens themselves to be at the centre of Government processes. Ok ok, none of us are really all that keen on the politics side of things (especially in Australia right now!) but when it comes to our communities – our social networks, our living and working conditions, and the broader environmental and cultural conditions of where we live, work and play – we want to be part of it.

This graphic aims to demonstrate the old organisation-centric way of working, versus the new citizen-centric approach. The question of course isn’t whether to apply this model to our work or not – it’s coming whether we like it or not! The question is whether we are ready?

Let’s Talk About Failure

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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.


Mindful Listening for Good Community Engagement

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I’ve been involved with many community engagement processes where everything is planned to absolute perfection. We’ve got clear methodology; we’ve identified our key stakeholders and have them participating in a process; we’ve identified our risks and mitigated against them; we’re clear about what input we are wanting from our stakeholders. You get the picture – it’s perfect!

But the one thing we didn’t count on is that the decision-makers we have in the room… aren’t listening!

I’ve been aware of this ‘flaw’ in several processes and witnessing someone clearly not listening is frustrating to say the least. And if you are the person not being listened to, it can be infuriating!

I was prompted to write this blog post following a conversation with my Mum. We’d been talking about what is important in a relationship and Mum had said that for her she felt it was very important to feel listened to. The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve realised how critical for ANY relationship it is for both parties to feel heard – whether this be a personal or professional relationship.

The skill of listening takes practice and even those of us who think we listen, need to practice. Being able to genuinely listen is a life skill worth having – and it will also improve your community engagement processes tenfold.

The ABC’s Making Australia Happy series, used research from the ‘science of happiness’ on the suburban streets of Sydney. Three of Australia’s leading experts were set the challenge to take eight people from Australia’s unhappiest area and give them the tools to become happier.  The program promoted being ‘mindful’, describing it as “paying attention with openness, curiosity and flexibility”. One of the skills they taught was the art of mindful listening.

The downloadable worksheet (PDF) helps people practice being mindful and includes a tip on mindful listening. As community engagers, we could all benefit from practicing this from time to time:

“Pick at least one person each day on whom to practice mindful listening. When they speak, be curious about the words they use, their facial expressions, their body language, the tone in their voice. See if you can read their emotional state, as well as listening intently to what they say. Attend to this person as if you are witnessing an Oscar-winning performance by the world’s greatest movie star, or a revealing confession from your own personal hero: notice every little detail of their face: every flicker of expression in their eyes, eyebrows, forehead, nose, and mouth. Listen with no agenda other than to understand their world; to get a sense of what they are feeling and thinking. And the moment you realize you’ve drifted off into your thoughts, bring your attention back to the other person.”

So there’s your homework. Especially you, Dad.