Do Healthy Communities Create Healthy People?

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As part of our work with clients in South Australia between 2010-2012, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with thousands of people living in metropolitan Adelaide to discuss their vision for the future. The conversations were predominantly part of community planning processes, at both a local and state level. Conversations were held face-to-face as well as using online tools.

This model shows that many layers exist within a healthy, thriving community.

The things that impact on people’s health includes their individual lifestyle; social and community networks; how we live and work; through to broader socio-economic conditions. The original Social Determinants of Health model (Dahlgren & Whitehead 1991) also shows how age, gender and hereditary factors have a central role to play in determining the health of an individual.

This model highlights the need for all sectors of Government to engage with communities on the broad range of topics shown. This is not only essential for efficient and effective service delivery but to contribute to an overall healthy community. It also highlights the importance of collaborative working – between Government departments and agencies, between the Government and the community, and between the community themselves. The model highlights that everything we do can impact on the health and well-being of the people living within that community.

We were also thrilled to hear that empowered citizens; people working collaboratively; and civic responsibility, values and pride were important to the community. Even more so, the desire to know our neighbours seems to rate very highly for people living in metropolitan Adelaide.

It should be noted that whilst we have used the information we’ve heard to apply it to a Social Determinants of Health model, this wasn’t the context in which people were asked about the future of their community. In general, conversations were based on generic questioning about their aspirations for their future community.

Is it time for a community engagement detox?

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Now it’s February, I can guess that most of our new years resolutions have gone out of the window? Mine was to drink less wine. I have clearly failed!

So let’s now turn our resolutions to our workplaces. I have a suggestion for you. Let’s have a Community Engagement Detox.

I was inspired several years ago by a blog that called for an end to public consultation. If I was more of a hoarder, or perhaps just more organised I’d be able to share the link with you and even tell you who wrote it. But I’m not, so you’ll have to just believe that it was a great article that challenged the traditional public consultation processes used by Australian Government of all levels as being stagnant, outdated and of no real use to anyone. From what I remember, the blog called for more creative and proactive approaches to working more collaboratively with communities.

I don’t think we should ban community engagement or public consultation – I’ve got too much riding on it! But I do think a break from it might be a good thing. Just as we detox from the vices we over indulge with in our everyday lives (mine: wine, chocolate, Facebook, watching tv when I should be exercising), let’s clear out those toxins and take a break from engagement.


To ‘detoxify’ is defined as the removal of an intoxicating or addictive substance. And I think we are addicted to ‘community engagement’. It has taken over our mental, physical and spiritual psyche. As decision-makers within the public sector, we are well and truly hooked on the process of ‘doing some engagement’ as part of our day to day work. Even if it isn’t a personal choice, it’s being pushed on to us from colleagues, managers, and even the community themselves.

But keep a clear head just for a moment, sober up and take a look at what we’re doing. It doesn’t take long to realise that the processes we are following (because we are addicted) aren’t necessarily healthy ones. They are often quick fixes – some might say ‘hits’ of community engagement. We’ll do a quick survey; we’ll run a one-off event where we invite ‘the community’; and gosh, we might even create a Facebook page. Whilst we think we are doing the right thing (and yes, it can feel soooo good), the high is short lived and we quickly thud back to earth with a bang. Until next time we need another hit and then the process is repeated.

Perhaps I’m insulting the engagement processes used by referring to them as toxins. I’ve seen some great use of surveys, one-off meetings and Facebook pages (and many many more techniques) – and yes, they have their place. But please understand they only give you a temporary ‘high’ and don’t promote an ongoing, deeper relationship with the community you serve.

I’m not going to talk about how things could or should be in this blog post. Instead, I’m going to suggest you work it out for yourself. Give yourself a detox. When you are addicted to something, in my opinion you need to go cold turkey. Don’t allow any ‘community engagement’ to happen for the rest of the month. If you’re serious about the detox maybe even the rest of the year. Get your entire organisation to detox. Ban the words. Ban the surveys.

Then let’s see what happens.

I expect that chaos will ensue. If you are addicted to community engagement, likelihood everyone around you is too. Colleagues will tell you that it isn’t possible to deliver a project without community engagement. The community themselves will be banging your door down demanding to know why they haven’t been consulted.

What I hope happens is that we all wake up one morning with a clear head. I hope too those around us will find themselves with clear heads. Along with our colleagues we may begin to see where genuine ongoing engagement with communities could really benefit the work we are doing – and where before hand we were simply doing it for the sake of it. Infact, we might even replace ‘engagement’ with the word ‘relationships’. I’d hope too that the community would feel liberated to take action within their own communities – find leadership, passion and determination from within – to take on the world and create a true sense of ownership in the place they live.

And of course, I’m here to hold your hand through the detox. Think of me as your ‘patch’. I can help you to assess any toxins that have been in your system and provide you with an action plan for initial detox followed by the implemention of a healthy lifestyle for you, your colleagues, your organisational and most importantly, your community. And I’ll keep you high throughout the process!

‘Twitter friendly’ events

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I recently attended Bang the Table’s ‘Pop Up’ Adelaide event and gave a presentation on some thoughts of how we might see face-to-face and online civic engagement becoming more integrated in the future.

My presentation highlighted that even if we don’t see our future civic engagement activity attracting a demographic beyond the usual suspects (we all know who they are), we may see numbers naturally increase due to the ‘baby boomers’ reaching the age we most often see at our face-to-face meetings. Of course, I would LOVE to see a broader demographic take an interest in community life and civic responsibility but as a worst case scenario I think we can be optimistic that numbers at our face-to-face events will grow due to this boom of our usual suspect demographic.

Along with this boom in older people, will come a boom of older people who are technologically savvy. No longer will I be faced with a room full of people who look blankly at me when I ask if they’ve checked in on Facebook, or taken note of the event hashtag. No doubt we’ll be on to something else by then anyway.

But amongst all of this, the Adelaide event triggered some online discussion amongst my fellow South Australian engagement practitioners about how even in today’s technologically savvy world, it can still feel awkward for those of us who like to have a conversation online whilst attending face-to-face events to do so without feeling impolite! Word hasn’t quite spread to everyone yet that the people at an event rapidly typing on their tablets or smartphone aren’t being ignorant or impolite. Far from it. Those people ‘on their phones’ are often sharing the insights from the face-to-face event with a broader online community.  There is a parallel discussion taking place – often accompanied by dialogue and deliberation that includes people unable to attend (recently named #gatehashing by Max Hardy and quickly adopted by Andrew Coulson) as well as bringing together people at the event who might not be able to connect in person due to seating arrangements, time constraints and so on.  It’s awesome!

And on pondering all of this in the Twitter world whilst at the event, the fabulous Valli Morphett asked (on Twitter of course) how we might overcome the barrier of seeming impolite whilst tweeting at events. A discussion ensued that quickly highlighted the potential for holding ‘Twitter friendly’ events. What would would these events involve? Well, some initial thoughts were –

– Clearly displayed signs sharing the #hashtag for the event, along with an explanation of what a hashtag is and why people will be using Twitter
– Large screens showing live tweets for everyone at the event to see
– Having ‘social media etiquette norms’ shared as part of the introduction to the event
– Having table centrepieces with the #hashtag and ‘permission to use phone for tweeting’ sign
– Opportunity to join the conversation for newbies – perhaps real life Tweet buddies to help get you started at the event
– Twitter handles/names incorporated on name badges or attendee lists

As Andrew correctly wrote, he’s sure someone will blog about Twitter friendly events soon. So there, I’ve blogged. But what other things could you do to make an event Twitter friendly?

What does a vegetable patch and good community engagement have in common?

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It’s been a great summer so far for getting out in the garden. I love a whiling away a few hours in the garden and clearing my mind. But I recently starting wondering what a healthy thriving vegetable patch might have in common with good community engagement…

A community – if nurtured well – can be very powerful. If nurtured poorly it can be dysfunctional.

I like to think of it in simple terms…

Picture a garden bed. Imagine there are hundreds of different herbs and vegetables all growing together in the same veggie patch.  If you nurture them by providing them with nourishing soil, regular composting, decent water and protect them from the elements – what happens?

They will grow healthy and strong and provide you with a useful product that you can create all sorts of different meals from. The best bit? You can keep going back to pick more over and over again.

On the flip side, you can forget to give it the attention it needs to thrive. Sure you might be too busy to properly water the produce regularly, you might scatter the odd bit of fertiliser every now and again when you remember and with some good luck one or two of the veggies might grow a little bit. But once you’ve picked them, that’s it. The patch is empty. There’s no ongoing benefit. The environment simply won’t help generate anything any more.

I have two questions for you

1.    If you were a vegetable which patch would you rather be living in?
2.    If you want to grow good quality vegetables which patch would you rather be cultivating?

When it comes down to it, human communities and options for engaging with them are no different to veggie gardens.

The thriving veggie patch took a lot more nurturing. It needed plenty of hard work, dedication and attention. But you’re left with a healthy garden that you can pick and choose from as you need to. You know you will get good quality produce over and over again. It saves you hundreds of dollars a year on your grocery bill – and you’re healthier for it! You notice the garden seems to take on a life of its own. Your tomatoes are multiplying at a rapid rate and new shoots are popping up day after day eager to be part of your patch and you haven’t even lifted a finger!

On the other hand, the neglected veggie patch might have provided you with one or two tasty morsels but probably more from sheer luck and determination on the vegetables’ part rather than anything you can take credit for as the gardener.

And what about all the little seeds of promise that you lost along the way? You’ll never know what benefits they could have added to your next meal. Next time you want to grow a veggie patch, you’ll have to start all over from scratch because your soil isn’t healthy – you need to re-do your foundations again.

So let’s apply the vegetable garden philosophy to community engagement.

As a living, breathing community member (a vegetable) I would rather be part of a community (vegetable patch) which is being facilitated by an organisation or representative (the gardener) who is responsive to my needs and genuinely cares about what will help me and my area to thrive – and not just this time around, but also in the future. I want a long-lasting, fruitful and connected relationship with my gardener.

You won’t get the same results from me if you don’t give me the individual attention I deserve. I don’t feel nurtured when I’m asked to fill in a token survey sent to me by someone I’ve never interacted with along my journey. I’m probably not going to attend a stock standard town hall meeting which would be a struggle to get to even if I wanted to because it’s scheduled from 4pm and I don’t finish work until much later.

If this gardener had worked hard on cultivating a relationship with me, then he would know this and would seek my input in a different way – a way that suits me, my needs and my schedule. In turn, I’d be more inclined to help him grow his garden. I would talk to and involve relevant people from my own network. The gardener has nurtured me and I will nurture others on his behalf.

The expert gardener isn’t interested in survey responses. He is interested in quality relationships and connections. He knows that 10 good relationships with key community members will be more valuable to him in the long run than 100 survey responses. Because those 10 influencers will go forth and multiply – much like out-of-control basil.

Think of it as the veggie patch affiliate sales model!

I challenge you to think about your own vegetable patch or the vegetable patch you are cultivating.

Could it be time for some landscaping, pruning and composting?

Think of me as your horticulturalist – I’m here to help you propagate, cultivate and maintain your garden. My gloves, watering can and trowel are at the ready and there is nothing I enjoy more than a garden overhaul!

In action at the Northern Sound System

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Becky Hirst shares the wealth of information gathered from the community following a ‘Community Think Tank’ at the Northern Sound System, near Playford South Australia. The Think Tank was held as part of the 2011 Update of the South Australia State Strategic Plan.

Community Think Tanks

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Hear about Becky Hirst’s role in the development of the 2011 South Australia Strategic Plan, particularly in relation to the Community Think Tanks she facilitated.

Will Facebook technology replace sticky dot voting?

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I came across this fab video yesterday of Renault at the Amsterdam Motor Show using Facebook to enable ‘real people’ to ‘like’ things on their Facebook profiles in person.

Clever, ey?

I think we’re a long way off implementing this type of ‘card swiping’  at community engagement events but can’t help but dream of the day when  community members turn up to a consultation event and are issued with  little swipe cards so that they can share their offline experience (and opinions) with their online friends.  The potential is huge and I hope to give this a go sometime before my retirement! (That gives us approximately 33 years)

Don’t be afraid… I dare you to start the conversation

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I had the pleasure of independently facilitating a challenging event with a challenging topic on Saturday. The topic was nuclear energy so as you can imagine I was braced to put my facilitation, moderation and mediation skills to the test.

Interestingly, the Council who hosted the event (The Corporation of the Town of Walkerville) had decided to invite four scientific professionals to speak on the topic – all putting forward their arguments as to why they are in favour of nuclear energy.

As you can imagine, this decision caused outrage particularly given the Council had also chosen to promote the event using a cartoon image of a couple questioning whether they should have a nuclear reactor in the backyard. The flyer itself attracted media attention and the RSVPs were flowing in, so we were expecting a big crowd. We were also aware that protesters would be present – something which I completely understood, given the pro-nuclear slant the afternoon was taking.

One of the first questions I ask my clients when I undertake a piece of work for them is ‘what is the decision to be made?’ but in this instance there was no decision. The decision as to whether Australia should have nuclear power was way way out of these decision-makers hands. This was simply a case of the Mayor having heard an interesting public lecture on the topic and wanting to bring the conversation to Walkerville. There was no intention for a nuclear reactor in Walkerville – it was just a conversation about a topic that is of interest (or dis-interest!) to our population. I did question why they had chosen to hear only the pro-argument as in most instances you would hear from both those in favour and those against and I must confess I was a little apprehensive as to how it was going to pan out.

I’m pleased to report that the afternoon was a success. I have no interest in whether peoples opinions changed as a result of it because being completely independent that wasn’t my mission – so this isn’t my measure of success. My mission was to guide the speakers, the Council and the audience through the discussion and this happened in a calm, considered and incredibly civilised manner. As at the majority of events I facilitate on controversial topics, I was expecting questions from the audience to be more like long statements of opinions but no – we had short succinct and very well composed questions. The panel members respondent with the same tone. It was a conversation… a real conversation!

I don’t know whether the success of the event was because we planned for worst case scenarios; because we laid down some fairly hefty structure and guidelines for the running of the session; or even because the idea of hearing just one side of the argument meant there wasn’t the back and forth debate like watching a game of tennis.

My biggest learning from the event was in relation to the courage shown by the Mayor of Walkerville to host a public conversation on a controversial topic. She took a great deal of personal flack for her decision but went ahead nevertheless. From the feedback received she is of course considering hosting an event looking specifically at the ‘anti-nuclear’ argument.

My wish for the future is that more Government organisations and departments don’t shy away from the difficult conversations but instead take them on (with thorough and sound planning of course). I also hope more start to use scenario based questioning as Walkerville did. The mundane questions we see again and again in public engagement activity (What’s your vision for the future? How can we better serve you?) can only be described as weak and pathetic when you compare them to ‘What about a nuclear reactor in your backyard?’.

Yes, this particular event was fictional as far as Walkerville’s decision-making goes but imagine the lively discussion and debate that would occur if instead we looked the REAL issues in the eye and ran at them with great gusto! If Walkerville can pack out a town hall with a diverse crowd on a Saturday afternoon on a long weekend, then perhaps we’ve got something to learn from them.

For those interested in the nuclear debate, and hearing about the event from one of the speakers perspectives, visit Decarbonise SA.

Time-lapsed Open Space

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I facilitated the South Australia IAP2 event yesterday which looked at the future of online community engagement. I used Open Space Technology as the method of facilitation and it was great fun. The technique seemed to be well received by most. Only one participant wanted a more traditional approach of ‘listening’ to an expert present and used the ‘Law of Two Feet’ to leave the event! We live and learn!

This video is a time-lapse of the event, with an image captured every 45 seconds. Enjoy!

5000+ Moving City Forum

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Becky Hirst recently facilitated a Forum for 5000+ which is a design-led project for the redesign, renewal and reactivation of inner Adelaide. The Moving City forum examined how we get around in Adelaide – and how we use the city to get around, along with the connections across the broader metropolitan area and into the city.