What are your 'engagement aims'?

 Three purposes of engagement - the engagement triangle

Three purposes of engagement - the engagement triangle

I love helping teams plan their engagement at an early stage of their thinking.  It's often done in a workshop, and we end up with an excellently solid shared understanding of what their engagement process is for, which then guide choices about methods, sequencing, aims for individual elements of the process and which stakeholders to engage.

One of the hardest disciplines to stick to - and yet one of the most useful - is to get really clear about the (multiple) engagement aims.

Sometimes known as the Public Engagement Triangle, this way of understanding "engagement aims" was developed originally by Lindsey Colbourne as part of her work with the Sciencewise-ERC, for the Science for All Follow Up Group.

The triangle helps the team get clear about:

  • What they need to transmit to people outside the team - more everyday words like 'tell', 'educate', 'raise awareness', 'inspire', 'persuade' also fit under this heading. 
  • What they need to receive from people outside the team - 'ask', 'insight', 'research' which might include both objective facts and opinion or preferences.
  • What they need to collaborate with people outside the team, to 'create', 'decide', 'agree', 'develop'.

There are a few more things to note about engagement aims.

Aligned with "what's up for grabs"

Engagement aims should align seamlessly with "what's up for grabs": if you've really already decided there will be a new range of water-efficiency equipment in your stores, don't ask people whether you should start selling it. Tell them you are going to.  Ask them what would make the range successful, or collaborate with them to co-design a promotional partnership.  

If you have preferences about the range (price points, supplier's sustainability credentials) then tell people about these so that their responses can take appropriate account of those criteria.

If you are entirely open-minded about some aspects, then people can have free rein to come up with ideas.

Be clear who is deciding what

If you are asking people for information, ideas, options and so on, make sure that you tell them who is making the final decision, or how it will be made. People very often mistake consultation (a receive activity) for shared decision-making (which sits in the collaborate corner). 

Voting in a local council election is shared decision-making: the number of votes completely determines who wins the seat.  Consultation on a planning application gives members of the public an opportunity to voice their perspective, elected councillors may take those views into account when determining the application.  Once the decision has been made, the planning authority will then tell people what the decision is.

In particular people interpret mechanisms which look like voting, as meaning that decision-making power has been devolved. Hence the grumpiness about Boaty McBoatface.

Consensus is a way of reaching a decision in a collaborative setting (although it is not the only one).  If you are receiving views (and then making the decision yourself) then, while it can be interesting to discover areas of consensus, it is not essential. Understanding the range of views (and the needs and concerns that underlie them) can be as useful.

The aims will change as the process unfolds

Just as the things which are fixed, negotiable and open will change over time, so will the engagement aims.  During an option-creating phase, things are likely to be more collaborative as people co-create possibilities.  You are also likely to want to receive a wide range of views and information.  Once options have been identified, then preferences and feedback are useful, but you may not want to encourage people to come up with entirely new options.  (Of course, if none of your options are acceptable, you may well need to to do this.  In effect you will be going back to being open, rather than having negotiable options.)  And when you've decided on a fixed outcome, tell people. 

Aims for individual activities within the wider process

Some activities are brilliantly suited to tell aims, others to ask aims and some to collaborate aims.  A feedback form on a newsletter is unlikely to elicit a well-worked up option supported by multiple parties.  A focus group isn't a good way of getting your message out. 

Here's a table of appropriate techniques.

 Engagement methods and the kinds of aims they are most suited to

Engagement methods and the kinds of aims they are most suited to

Aims for different stakeholders

Depending on the kind of 'stake' they have, you will want to engage different stakeholders with different levels of intensity and it's highly likely that you will have different engagement aims for different stakeholders or types of stakeholder.

When developing a strategic flood plan, for example, you may want to tell residents and people who work in a particular area that the plan is being developed, how they can keep informed about its progress, what their opportunities are to input and in due course, what you have decided.

You will want to ask landowners, parish and town councillors and those people managing particular businesses, nature reserve, utilities and vital services what their aspirations and needs are over the time period of the plan, and for data about geology, biodiversity, demographics and so on. 

And you will want to collaborate with key decision-makers whose support and active involvement is vital for the success of the strategy - e.g. county council, lead local flood authority and so on. 

Plan and improvise

This kind of strategic, analytical approach shouldn't be seen as a way of tying you down. The engagement plan should be a living thing: not sitting on a shelf gathering dust.  In fact, it gives the team a great foundation of shared understanding of the context and objectives which makes improvising in response to changing circumstances much more successful.