Rethinking Deliberative Engagement

ANZ Territory Manager, Mel Hagedorn unpacks current legislative shifts in Victoria and provides four essential tips on how to run a deliberative engagement process.

2020 has definitely tested the Community Engagement industry to think on their feet and abandon the status quo of delivering engagement.

Our peers in Victoria are having to review and adopt a community engagement policy that includes deliberative engagement practices for major projects such as the Community Vision, the Council Plan, the Financial Plan, and Asset Plan. 

What is Deliberative Engagement?

In the past few months, some reflections on the Act have highlighted that deliberative engagement processes such as Citizen Juries, Consensus Conferences, Community Panels, Local Partnerships, are the only way to constitute a process of deliberation. These are large-scale and resource-intensive undertakings for Councils requiring time, financing, and human resources and I doubt that this was the intention of the Local Government Act 2020 (the Act). 

It has become clear that the Act was intended to give Victorian communities an opportunity to actively participate in a clear and robust decision-making process. Community should be afforded the opportunity to participate in a conversation with Council and other stakeholders to build their understanding of a clearly articulated problem statement, read and educate themselves with robust and accessible information, debate and contribute solutions around the negotiables of the projects whilst understanding the non-negotiables to come to a shared understanding. 

In some instances, a room full of 1,000 people could be warranted and possible in a COVID-19 safe way in the future. However, given our current situation around protecting our communities’ health, the likelihood of communities wanting to be in a room full of unknown people to participate is unlikely even when restrictions allow. 

How can I run a Deliberative Engagement Process?

As each community varies, and the goals and objectives of each Council are diverse. Below are four tips to get you started:

1. Clearly Articulate the Problem 

Too often we see organizations agonize over presenting the community with the solution without taking into account lived experience. If Council can clearly articulate the problem that you need to work with the community on, the chances of outrage decrease. 

Take your community through a design-thinking process where you empathize with them to define the challenge and explore the human context, define why it is important and create a point of view, ideate on how to solve those problems, prototype those ideas with options, designs, test it through implementation, evaluate. 

design thinking

2. What is Negotiable

In recent times, I’ve seen engagement projects asking me to ‘Have your say on a draft policy’, or ‘Tell me my thoughts on a park upgrade.’ What they haven’t told me is that ‘a large proportion of the draft policy is completed,’ and the only part I can influence is ‘on the third page in paragraph six,’ or that I can only influence ‘the types of dogs allowed in the dog off-leash section of the park.’ 

Clarifying what people can influence helps your community to adjust their expectations about what Council is going to deliver. If you are unclear, this has the potential to reduce your communities’ trust in you, and their willingness to be involved. 

3. Create the Opportunity for Dialogue

It needs to be a two-way conversation. Just like you have the community walk into an open house/pop up station to discuss the project, you can do this online too. There are plenty of tools available from forums, video conferencing, text messages, emails etc. Whilst the immediacy of the conversation might be different, you still need to be present, and active within the conversation. Digital engagement does not mean set and forget. It is possible to create connection and empathy in an online environment. As Stephani Roy McCallum mentioned in the recent IAP2 Webinar Keep on Engaging: Holding Space for High Emotion Conversations, you can still provide empathy, be present in difficult situations online, you just need to plan for them. 

4. Use a Suite of Tools to Suit Your Engagement Methodology

A deliberative process takes time, so use the tools that your organization has at its disposal.

The best example I have seen in recent years of a digital-first deliberative process was the work Straight Talk did for the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Review. The team used a series of tools over the course of the engagement process to help build the communities’ understanding of the problem. Note it wasn’t horses, but the protection of a rare grass species that only grows in Kosciuszko National Park. 

The real stand out was their Conversation Kits that allowed individuals to collect feedback from family and friends around a kitchen table. The project team allowed the community to either enter it directly into EngagementHQ or send back a paper copy. It is this type of thinking that will allow Councils in Victoria to be truly inclusive in their decision-making processes without expensive approaches on the Empower end of the IAP2 Spectrum

Learn more about making deliberative dialogue work online

Consider Bang the Table Marketplace to enhance your engagement tool suite and expand the options for reaching the community with interactive PDF’s using Konveio to get comments on your draft policy and documents, SMS engagement with Message Media or interactive dashboards.

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