There is a growing hunger for more, and more meaningful, citizen participation in decisions that affect our lives. Across the world, calls for open government, workplace democracy, community empowerment are gaining support, as are innovative developments in deliberative democracy. The current COVID-19 pandemic makes these calls more pressing than ever, given the deepening inequalities it has caused and the complex challenges of building a progressive road out of the crisis.
So, now more than ever we need people capable of designing and planning public engagement processes that are empowering and worthwhile. Experienced practitioners know that, without considerable forethought, care and preparation, public engagement processes risk achieving little or, worse, alienating people so that they never engage (with you or anyone else) again.
This Handbook seeks to deepen people’s skills in designing and planning effective public engagement processes, by providing a structured four-stage framework for tackling the task. It draws on the authors’ extensive practical experience of training and working with public engagement facilitators across sectors as well as international expertise.
You may be a citizen, a community or public engagement practitioner, an elected or government representative, or some other sponsoring organisation or stakeholder. You may be new to this kind of work or experienced but wanting to review and improve your practice. Or you may be studying public participation in democratic processes. Wherever you are coming from, and whatever type of public engagement you are doing, this Handbook promises to be a useful addition to your toolbox.
The framework elaborated in this Handbook is a structured and logical way to work through the task of designing and planning any engagement process. It involves four overlapping stages, each with a specific task which feeds into the next. By addressing each stage in turn and clearly articulating the reasons for each decision, the framework should help you develop engagement processes that work for everyone and deepen your reflective practice.
Many practitioners report that they do not devote enough time to thinking strategically about the context and goals of an engagement. The temptation is to dive straight in to planning ‘what we will do’ without fully reflecting on why you are doing it or where folk will be coming from.
A crucial message of this Handbook, therefore, is that you really must make time to think and take crucial decisions about your process before doing the necessary planning work. Uniquely, this staged approach encourages practitioners to think strategically about what ‘requirements’ the engagement process must meet, and to draw up an overall ‘process design’, before elaborating a detailed process plan.
Stage 1: Strategy
Public engagement processes can involve a diverse range of possible goals, participants, settings and duration. The task in this first stage is to map strategic considerations for your particular engagement process:
The focus of the engagement (e.g. history, issues, decision makers)
Initiators of the process (e.g. motivations, perspectives, knowledge)
The point is to identify anything that might have a bearing on the goals of your engagement process and any other ‘requirements’ the process needs to meet. This task can involve securing commitment and support from key participants and decision makers.
Because good engagement processes need to be collaborative, you must cultivate the ability to ‘think from the other’, in order to understand where each group of initiators and potential participants are coming from and to anticipate the likely diversity of your ‘publics’.
Stage 2: Requirements
The task of this stage, the end point of your strategic work, is to identify and agree on what ‘requirements’ your engagement process must meet if it is to be fit for purpose, specifically:
What are appropriate goals?
What is the best time and place?
What recruitment strategy is needed?
What facilitation challenges do we need to attend to?
Arrangements concerning time/place and recruitment obviously need to be made well in advance. The goals and facilitation challenges you identify will be guiding principles through your process design and planning work.
Stage 3: Design
We draw a distinction between designing an engagement process, which identifies what steps need to happen and why, and planning the process, which details how each step will be done. The task of this stage is to develop a ‘process design’ – namely, a progression of steps, each defined by a ‘mini-objective’, that can take folk from where they are to where they and you want to be.
Your process design should reflect your strategic considerations and requirements. It should:
be capable of meeting your goals for the engagement process
address the facilitation challenges you have identified
be achievable within the time available.
Because the process design details what needs to be achieved at each step, it provides an excellent template for process planning.
Stage 4: Planning
The task of this final stage is to elaborate a fully detailed plan for how each step in your process design will happen. This is an iterative task:
Draw up a timeline, identify individual sessions and work out timings
Choose techniques, methods and groupings for each session
Decide on all the practical details about how you will do each session
Draft and refine the full process plan
A good process plan is a workable set of instructions for how to conduct your engagement process. It must be capable of meeting all your requirements and attend to each mini-objective in your process design.
The Handbook provides a set of checklists for working through the framework, intended to be used flexibly as prompts not as rigid rules. The key ‘take away message’ is to make sure your team does address each task in turn, and is clear about its reasons for the decisions taken at each stage.
Learning to work in this way is a great foundation for reflective practice. Public engagement processes can throw up surprises! When things don’t entirely work out as planned, or outcomes and outputs aren’t entirely as hoped for, we can reflect on the choices and judgements we made at each the stage and so deepen understanding to take forward in our future practice.
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