In business, the more you engage with your customer, the more you know their needs, and the better you can serve them. Engaging the customer is ultimately a win-win proposition for both parties. This is as true for government agencies and non-profits as it is for any business: everyone can stand to gain from open lines of communication. Below are three ways government agencies can improve their public engagement.
- Eliminate One-Size-Fits-All Approaches
A lesson learned from an engagement process in one place cannot be applied as a cookie cutter solution in another. In a recent paper, public engagement researcher Marie Andree Roy describes how an award-winning participatory budgeting program in Brazil became an anti-democratic nightmare when mandated for use in Peru. Engaging with the public means getting participation from – and listening to – the affected individuals. Just as a business stands to gain more from adapting based on its target audience’s feedback, government and non-profits must prioritize the engagement of those who have a stake in the issue.
- Stick To Core Principles: They Matter More Than Trends
When it comes to improving customer service, it isn’t just about the public engagement tools you use. It is the principles and the value base of the organization that largely determines the quality of its service or engagement.Some of our clients want to jump on the latest engagement trends. They get excited about social media and clamour for online dialogue. But for the conscientious Public Engagement Practitioner, positive outcomes don’t stem from the use of the latest trends in and of themselves. It is about how you use the newest tools, what values you uphold in using them, and whether you’re using good principles of design. As Jodi Dean argues, social media “feeds a fantasy of democratic engagement” ; social media allows the public to feel as though they are engaging and participating in political dialogue, and yet their efforts on these platforms may well be undervalued or overlooked by those in positions of power. Authentic and meaningful engagement is more important than using the latest “flavor of ice cream” in public engagement.
- Constant Evolution For An Improved Process
Finally, it’s important to remember that the public engagement process needs to always be transparent about what works and what doesn’t. Improvement in customer service comes incrementally, from learning from both success and failure… This means your organization doesn’t have to be perfect all the time – but it does have to be willing to learn and adapt.When an organization can use the available tools while maintaining strong values, excellent customer service is born.
We have plenty of examples of organizations that have made public engagement practice a priority, resulting in generally positive outcomes. Here are two:
Capital Health Halifax, a regional health agency, has for many years involved patients and citizens in decision-making conversations about the operations of the agency. By discovering first-hand through public engagement what works and what doesn’t, CHH delivers health care in a more responsive and effective manner.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research is a federal funding agency for health research, providing support to more than 13,200 health researchers across Canada with a holistic approach. They also have a long-term policy of public engagement (PE), with a PE policy handbook and framework in widespread use within the agency. They have a strategy for patient-oriented research, in which patients are involved in the actual design and development of the research agenda.
In both of these health-oriented agency examples, we see the win-win nature of “customer” engagement, or in these cases, patient and citizen (patient-to-be) engagement. By gathering citizen input, patient services improve, as well as the agencies’ core activities. Better customer experiences reflect better institutions. So when it comes to public engagement, an organization’s commitment to values, particularly transparency and flexibility is far more important than jumping on trends. It’s in our best interests to commit to ongoing engagement and service improvement – no matter the organization, everyone benefits from public input.