Face-to-Face Community Engagement is Dead!

Dan Popping, Australian Practice Lead, Bang the Table reflects on The Ridiculous People’s Debate and discovers underlying links to key engagement principles.

If you think that title seems a little provocative, it’s supposed to be. It was the controversial statement that I recently argued in an online debate. However, this debate was not your average event. 

The Ridiculous People’s Debate was a concept brought alive by my friend and colleague Valli Morphett from Design Jam. Designed to bring a ton of humor, energy, and silliness into the everyday lives of community engagement practitioners, it was as thought-provoking as it was ridiculous.

The event was part of Capire’s two-day virtual community engagement conference, Turn it Up. Conducted via Zoom, and on the day our audience was randomly split into two debating teams, with an additional team tasked to design judging criteria. And, to make it even crazier, two guest judges (consultant Becky Hirst and Amy Hubbard of Capire) kept unexpectedly popping in and out of our online preparation time to distract and entertain us all.

I was given a participant team to argue that ‘face-to-face community engagement is dead,’ and Max Hardy from Max Hardy Consulting and his random team was to refute this statement. Once Valli had set the scene and given us our instructions, we then had 25 minutes to prepare for the impending debate. They were some of the quickest minutes of my life. I facilitated my team hard so we could crowdsource and co-create our ideas together. Did it go to plan? Not really, but after all, it was a ridiculous debate.

My team argued that COVID-19 has changed our world forever, that you can engage online at any time, any device, or any location these days. We reminded everyone that digital engagement is better for our environment and it’s faster and more efficient than traditional face-to-face methods. We reinforced how online engagement can reach a significantly broader audience and be more representative of your community by engaging the traditionally hard-to-reach cohorts and individuals. Online conversations are designed to occur over time, allowing participant reflection, shifts in thinking, re-engagement, and true dialogue to occur so your community can deliberate and agree on outcomes. We also argued that data collected online is much easier to analyze and report back, and with all the ‘millennials’ about to move up in the workforce, everything will be online in the future.

Max and his team were a worthy opponent and they put forward an absolutely ridiculous conspiracy theory like none other I had heard before. They did, however, make some interesting points such as our natural desire to connect in-person, how powerful human story-telling is, and that IT often fails and not everyone has the skills to use digital platforms. I’m sure there were a few others, but to be perfectly honest I was too busy being ridiculous or being distracted by someone else who was being ridiculous. 

Yes, I shaved off (half) of my mustache, we had singing judges interrupt our preparation time, bribery was undertaken, somebody revealed their secret wig collection, many people danced, some wore costumes, some didn’t wear pants and an air guitar was played. In the end, judging was conducted online by all participants, and the winner was announced: ‘Guest Judge – Becky’. (What?!– I think it was rigged!)

It’s really hard to describe this event in words, but if I had too I would say it was the love-child of ‘Theatre Sports’ and a ‘Community Engagement Process’. It was fun, it was engaging, and it was completely ridiculous.

Engagement Principles

Whilst pondering how much fun I had, I can’t help but think about some of the underlying lessons I took away and how similar they are to principles I use when designing and planning community engagement processes.

Planning is key to a successful engagement

Whilst this engagement was created and held within a few short weeks, there was still a lot of planning that went on behind the scenes. Even though the event was ridiculous and unpredictable, it was in fact planned and designed that way. Valli had a clear set of outcomes she wanted to achieve. She identified and involved her stakeholders, chose the most appropriate engagement tools, and mitigated some potential risks. Similarly, Max and I did as much planning and preparation as possible to ensure that we could facilitate our respective groups and put forward a worthy and ridiculous debate. What’s that saying? “Prior preparation prevents poor performance.”

Involve your key stakeholders early

As event host and creator, Valli initiated a number of online meetings with our hosts Capire, Max Hardy, myself, and the two guest judges to finalize the event structure and to agree on what roles we would each undertake. This is a great example of involving your key stakeholders early in the design of your engagement. And by including us in this early stage, we all had buy-in to the event and we were able to value-add by bringing our own ideas and expertise to the table, making the event better than Valli imagined.

Information is king

One of the biggest challenges Max and I faced was how to exchange a lot of information with our respective debating teams. This information was crucial so everyone could understand the overall debating process, their role in the debate, and then of course co-creating the actual content for the debate itself. We used a variety of ways to share and exchange information from chat boards to slide-decks to verbal exchange and more. It was a bit all over the place, and in fact, it was quite ridiculous. On reflection, it is a great reminder of how important it is to provide quality information to your audience and if possible to have it accessible and all in one place.

You need interested participants

This was never going to be a regular community engagement event. Therefore, the language and words we used in our promotion leveraged this idea of ridiculousness and of fun. We wanted to spark imagination, set a ridiculous challenge, and invite people to join us for good debating fun. Whilst there was a slightly serious side to the statement that ‘face-to-face engagement is dead,’ it wasn’t until I looked at the people left dancing at the end that I realized that people were more interested in having fun than debating the actual topic. When you understand why your stakeholders and community would be interested in an engagement project, you can use this to promote and entice them to get involved.

You need adequate time to engage

The most challenging part of this event was facilitating a random group of people online with only 20 minutes to collaborate and get our debate ready. With such limited time, I had to make some executive decisions, I had to talk quickly, act quickly, involve quickly; everything was rushed and I know it was a little bit confusing. It is a big reminder that when planning your engagement activities, you need to allow adequate time. People are busy and you need to allow time for them to participate when it most suits them, and you also need to allow adequate time for people to read information, reflect, form opinions, and contribute.

You need to use multiple tools

Like most engagement projects, I needed to use different engagement tools to achieve different outcomes. I decided to use ‘physical hand jesters’ (via zoom video) so participants could quickly share a debating topic/idea, and then everyone would quickly vote (hands on heads for YES, crossed arms for NO). If yes, we all then used the Zoom chat function crowdsourcing additional comments and ideas that our three debaters could use to craft their debate.

Be brave, experiment, and have fun

Community engagement is often serious; it can be driven by legislation, revolve around a controversial project, or perhaps a new proposal that polarises your community. The People’s Ridiculous Debate was a great reminder that we need to inject a little bit of fun and creativity into our engagement practices. So, I encourage practitioners to be brave, test and trial new approaches, experiment with new tools and most of all have fun.

Learn more about principles and steps and planning for engagement.

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