This site from Australia shows how a council is using online forums to engage with at least some of their constituents on a range of matters including:
- plans for varying local rates
- council strategy for trees and
- the development of community and cultural facilities
This particular council has a resident population of around 74 000 and participation on the forums is relatively low. Unsurprisingly perhaps, rate variations has got by far the most traffic almost certainly because of its direct impact on the self interest of local people.
There is no doubt that the forums have surfaced a wide range of opinions that may not otherwise have been heard – and some clearly offer clues to the council on areas where its own performance may benefit from a review. The forums provide an interesting case study in the potential and limitations of such online engagement tools for informing decision making and policy.
However the point I wish to make is not about the medium of engagement (in this case online) but on the content of engagement. In this case we have rates, trees, community and cultural facilities, a planning application and integrated planning strategy as the topics for engagement.
My question is this.
Of the 74 000 residents of this council, how many have their own progress genuinely held in check by any of these issues?
How many people cannot make progress in their own lives until the council sorts out its strategy on trees? Or integrated planning? Or even business rates?
The answer is very few. In most cases perhaps none. These are examples of what I call lowest common denominator issues. Most people will agree that they matter and need thinking about. They are also impersonal enough to be safe topics for discussion. But for next to nobody will they be the really critical issues that hold back individual talent or community potential.
Many of those 74 000 people will have ideas about how they could make a better life for themselves, their families and the community. And most of them will have a pretty good idea about what is stopping them. Instead of engaging local people in the somewhat ‘removed’ priorities of the council, the council could design engagement processes that enable people to engage with each other, the council and other stakeholders, in their real priorities for making a better life. To uncover the real issues that act as barriers to real people making progress in real lives.
If people are to be open and honest about what is stopping them from making progress we need to have a relationship with them that is trusted, confidential, competent and compassionate. I suspect that such relationships cannot generally develop entirely online. That they still demand an element of face to face conversation. That they will need real people working in the community with good engagement and development skills. They may also need additional reserves of social capital, community networks and ‘brains trusts’ that can be accessed to provide support and expertise as and when it is needed.
Until we start to engage large numbers of individuals and groups on the real issues that they feel are preventing them from pursuing their aspirations then we will not get to heart of the matter.
Perhaps we should stop seeking to engage the people in our strategies and plans, but instead seek to engage ourselves in theirs?