Engagement – through the looking glass
Does a recent book on community engagement
provide a fair reflection?
Several aspects of Becky Hirst’s recent book, For the love of community engagement make it a worthwhile contribution to the literature.
There is the consummate storytelling. There are great insights into different causes and diverse communities. There are helpful terms and language that can help us recognise current practice – good or bad. And there is the creative and generous borrowing and sharing of experience from other, established practitioners.
But maybe its most valuable role is in obliging some of us to look in the mirror to see if we recognise some of the manifest drawbacks that Becky Hirst has identified as endemic to parts of the public engagement and consultation activity. She does not mince her words. She regards the mindset of Government agencies as being top-down, organisation-centric, we-are-more-important-than-you-are. She characterises much of the conventional approach as “we are going to make a decision – and we are going to be deciding the level you be engaged in it.”
Not unexpectedly, therefore, she concludes that communities – when faced with such an attitude – will have no faith in any consultative process, or the people who initiate them.
This critique is not new. And neither is it necessarily inaccurate. Over the years, at the Institute, we have regularly met arrogant decision-makers, so certain of their own judgements that they have no intention whatever of listening to any advice. Macho-managers – of whatever gender – still exist. But whereas we thought they were a diminishing breed, Becky Hirst disagrees and prompts us to look again at ourselves and ask the question once again. Are we really serious about working with communities? Or are we fooling ourselves?
As we look into that mirror what do we see? Do we see an organisation that is complacent, unaware of its own deficiencies and possibly unwilling to engage with its critics? Or do we find Directors who mean well and who preside over what they think is a ‘listening’ agency, without realising that the reality is different? Do some bosses think it is ‘job done’, if they delegate public engagement to competent officers? Indeed, can conscientious public servants make up for the disinterest of senior managers? Or, being cynical, do you see time-serving bureaucrats who see the whole palaver as a giant tick-box exercise? Be honest. What DO you see.?
Let me share with you, what I personally see. Firstly, I see a mixed picture and a range of behaviours in the public sector from diligent, serious and genuine commitments to engage comprehensively with communities – through to the caricature dishonesty which Becky Hirst describes. The advantages of being close to the people you serve – and the interests they represent – are patently obvious to many senior executives or Council leaders. They do not need lectures on the desirability of sound engagement – but they may need encouragement. Most public bodies are on a journey – and whereas Becky believes they are moving backwards (“unless there are radical changes, governments will continue to move further away from having genuine connections and relationships with the communities they serve.” Becky Hirst Page 25, I believe they are moving forwards, because there are inexorable forces that propel them in this direction.
So, my second observation is that these forces have been accumulating. Technology is one of them. Social media, for all its ills, democratises debate and increases participation. Members of Parliament – or Councillors who mis-read the mood of communities face a twitterstorm, Facebook campaigns, e-petitions and more. The COVID-19 pandemic and the massive behaviour-change that came in its wake, has made millions of people acutely conscious that decisions taken by Governments and public bodies – actually affect our day-to-day lives. Then the Courts have helpfully enforced higher standards of public consultation, rejecting the excuses of public bodies who tried to cheat. Taken together, these intensify the pressures on public bodies to engage more genuinely.