A well-executed public engagement can bring significant, tangible improvements to a community or to public policy. But a poorly conceived, designed, or executed process can be a waste of everybody’s time. Following these seven steps can help make sure you get things right.
- Be clear on expectations and objectives. This is not as easy as it sounds. The client may not know exactly what they need. Is it a deliberative dialogue, where a group of citizens or stakeholders work through tensions and trade-offs in order to find common ground? Or are they looking for a round of idea generation where thoughts on challenges and best practices can be bandied about? It is important to determine clearly what the goals of engagement are and therefore what the best process is to help reach those goals. Getting clarity on the goal often takes repeated conversations to make sure everyone is on the same page.
- Prepare well. The process needs to have a thoughtful design, and all of the logistics need to have been thought through. You need to create a roadmap for what you have to do, and what the client has to do.
- Establish a solid structure. You need a structured process design that will still allow for flexibility in the actual rollout of the engagement exercise so that you can facilitate the conversation to best serve the participants in having the best dialogue they can. Having a good structure actually helps one to be more nimble and adapt as needed.
- Develop ground rules for participation. Ground rules are an agreed-to way for participants to engage with each other. They help to provide a safe space for dialogue:
- The purpose of dialogue is to understand and to learn from one another (you cannot “win” a dialogue).
- Everyone is equal: leave status and stereotypes at the door.
Be open and listen respectfully to others especially when you disagree. Suspend judgment.
- Identify and test assumptions (even your own).
- Listen carefully and respectfully to the views of others: acknowledge you have heard the other, especially when you disagree.
- Look for common ground.
- Express disagreement with ideas, not with personalities or motives.
- Share the airtime – don’t dominate the conversation.
- Stay on topic and make an effort to connect your ideas to what other people have contributed.
- Provide good and balanced information. Make sure the citizens or stakeholders have the information they need to have an informed conversation, especially when dealing with scientific or complex issues. The information must reflect all sides of the issues.
- Keep the target in view. As a facilitator, make sure you know where you need to get to by the end of a session. A good facilitator is able to keep their eye on the end game but still accommodate participants’ needs in getting there.. It’s not about being a taskmaster, it is about managing the process.
- Relax and have fun. Experience has proven that people will bring everything they’ve got to the table if you give them a good way to work through it together. A more relaxed setting will bring the best results.
A successful dialogue within the engagement process is like a jazz ensemble. The really high points come as a result of improvisation, but the improvisation wouldn’t sound nearly as good without the structure of a song behind it. Plan, structure and manage your citizen engagement wisely, then listen to the conversation sing!