Community engagement is the involvement of citizens in the decision-making of government. It is essential to the future of good decision-making, but its rise as an industry has done little to curb the current collapse in trust in government. This may be because it is increasingly a method without a clear underpinning public sector purpose, and it often asks citizens to deliberate on issues they would rather leaders lead on.
Here are three question’s you should ask yourself before engaging:
1. SHOULD WE BE HERE? (OR DO YOU REALLY NEED LEADERSHIP?)
Start by thinking “should we be engaging?”
Geoff Mulgan describes four activities of public service, two of which the public do not want to think about. Instead they want quiet efficiency, predictability and reliability from governments smart enough to deal with complexity. We should rethink some consultation because it leaves people feeling nervous the opposite is true. Aside from the public not wanting to be endlessly consulted on every detail of policy, Mulgan argues government should not believe it can deliver everything "to an eternally grateful public". There is no consensus. Leadership through difficult decisions is an art we need not to lose.
Asking whether you are consulting because of a failure of leadership, could save an enormous amount of money.
2. WHO KNOWS WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW?
If you genuinely need input, the second thing you should ask is who holds the knowledge that can answer your question?
If you want to know about how users feel about a service, ask the users. It would be wrong, as happens in some satisfaction surveys, to ask the general population (for example, about how government does servicing the LGBTI or multicultural communities). On the other hand, if you want to assess a new development you will need a representative sample of the population. You don’t want to assume “squeaky wheels” are the only people with knowledge. Complex issues may also require deliberation – where people are given information about an issue before they are asked about it to temper self-interest.
But sometimes the public might not hold the knowledge to the issue you want to solve, particularly around climate, economic, or other types of change. The people who do know may be community experts who understand how to organise differently, using the “commons” (land, water, minerals, scientific research, hardware or software), to create new public service platforms or business models that can generate community benefits. This area of consultation – that searches for new collaborative (public) tools for our problems – is underutilized despite there being a layer of these people in our communities, particularly our local communities, that want to be more active with government.
3. ARE YOU SERIOUS?
Research has shown much consultation is neither representative nor deliberative and has little impact on decision making. The public are all too aware that much of this work is done solely to “tick the consultation box”. This does not contribute to good policy, erodes trust, and flies in the face of our ethical obligations: to not burden people with consultation unless it is a legitimate search for knowledge, gathered the right way, and not able to be solved a better way.
We are under increasing pressure to check everything with consultation. Two futures are possible. In one, we go home every night to a 100 surveys to check every political decision. But nothing changes, and we continue to lose faith in governments who can’t protect us from our biggest challenges. In the other, government’s genuinely join with communities, meaningfully utilizing their knowledge, to create a new form of public service that can solve challenges.
Which way we go depends on how we advise our governments to engage going forward.