Managing the risk from unrepresentative critics through online stakeholder engagement

Last month I had one of those experiences that make you realise how little some people in positions of power understand the importance of community involvement in public life. I’m not going to name any names here, that wouldn’t be fair but the principle deserves some discussion.

We had agreed to run a consultation for a major public sector organisation which is involved with shaping the future of their community. To date the organisation, which does great PR, has always argued that it enjoys broad community support despite having a band of vocal community critics.

The idea of using EngagementHQ was to throw consultation open and to allow the real people to get involved. I remain convinced, as do the organisation’s staff, that the results of this process would have been a major boost for the organisation’s morale and self image as most people are both interested and passionate about the charter of the organisation.

The organisation’s staff have been aware of Bang the Table for some time and waited until they felt the time was right. Which it is, or was, last month apparently. Great! All systems go!

Then came the call , the about face. Sorry, we can’t proceed. Why not? Well it seems that the board is concerned about not giving a mouthpiece to critics……..

Hang on a minute! What about all those who have something constructive to say. Don’t they get to be listened to just because the board fears that it might be criticised? And why shouldn’t the critics be heard? Is criticism suddenly a bad thing? Can these big corporate boys not handle people disagreeing with them?

This I am afraid is all too typical of attitudes to community engagement in Australia today. Hold a public meeting, invite submissions, tick the box and spin for all you’re worth.

Thankfully there is an emerging group of organisations, particularly in local government, who understand the need to really consult, who can handle criticism and who value input.

I guess it may be some time before the public routinely demands access to independent and transparent consultation processes but that time cannot come soon enough.

Photo Credits: Stuart Caie

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