Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Engagement for the environment

Engagement, the feeling of being involved and participating in activities, is vital for organisational effectiveness. It’s also vital for the creation of sustainable, conserver cities because it: is an essential part of on-going social learning; helps to ensure that individuals, communities and organisations get their dues; helps to empower local communities; involves mutual give and take; helps in getting governance right and is thus crucial to effective, shared, leadership, power and responsibility; helps to enhance general wellbeing; boosts ownership of changes needed to move towards sustainability.

To maintain and improve performance it’s important for organisations, whether businesses, government departments/agencies/bodies, non-governmental organisations, to cyclically review and revise why and how they engage with those who affect and/or are affected by their activities (stakeholders). Here’s my description of a practical process of review that organisations should conduct.
Auditing, taking stock of the current situation is the logical starting point for a review. Organisations should ask: what do we know already about our engagement? Effective organisations have a history of gathering relevant data on engagement, its depth and scope, quantitative and qualitative aspects. Level of engagement is one crucial aspect of performance to measure, indicating an important part of social sustainability. Information needs to be collated and evaluated asking: how was it obtained, by whom and when? Is it accurate and reliable? Has the information be obtained in the same way at the same time over a period of years, so that it can be fairly tracked? Are there any ‘hidden’ patterns, for example by stakeholder type or location??  What do the figures mean - how good/bad are they? Is there an upward or downward trend?

The second stage of a review of engagement should examine the root causes of the current state, asking: are there other/better measures of engagement? Which people get involved and why? Common reasons why people engage include: personal interest or common interests; aspiration to change things; very firm belief in a set of principles; exposure and access to opportunities to do things; and to voice opinions.

Having taken stock and considered root causes of the current state of stakeholder involvement, organisations then need to ask: what could we do to improve things and enable continual improvements in engagement? This third stage of a review should generate possible solutions, asking: what range of actions should we consider taking? The fourth stage is about selecting the best solution(s) from the range of possibilities. Engagement produces more engagement if:  it’s been influential and acted upon; if it’s appropriately tailored not necessarily the same thing for all; fluctuations according to issues and activities are accounted and planned for, with variety. 

Engagement happens at a range of levels and through a number of means. This list begins with basic engagement and ends with the most developed - information: such as newsletters, websites, exhibitions > consultation: groups, surveys, meetings > involvement: on-going dialogue; workshops; polling > collaboration: participatory decision making > empowerment: local control, highly developed structures, on-going mutual engagement.

In engaging it’s important to establish and develop relationships and networks. Key factors here are:  strengthening open culture, equity, mutual trust, trusted spaces and commitment; good quality and quantity of two-way information flow; support for connectors; fostering participation, collaboration and conversations; building fluid groups; co-designing.

Having selected the best solutions(s), the fifth stage of a review should ask: how should we go about implementing it? Implementation plans need to address: people, process, purpose, context, outcomes. Good engagement will reach all parts of the organisation and its stakeholders, not just the people who are already involved. Typical participants in an organisations decisions and activities vary according to the activity and the issue, but some groups can be harder to engage than others – often because they do not want or do not have the time compared with other priorities.

It’s important to reach out to and beyond perceived ‘usual suspects’ that can dominate participation; to and beyond older people to all ages; to all ethnic groups; to both men and women; to people in rural and urban areas…ie be as inclusive and broad in appeal as possible.

Many creative approaches to community engagement have been developed - participatory appraisal, games, modelling, websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, computer simulations. A variety of approaches helps. Knowledge about previous attempts to engage helps find most appropriate tools available for the task in hand (see the audit stage). Tools use will need to be determined by who it is you need to engage and what you know about them. Training is a key consideration, as is the sharing of leadership roles.

The sixth and ‘final’ stage of the review process is about maintaining continual improvement. Organisations need to implement and monitor, asking: have we/are we improving? How can we get on-going improvements in stakeholder engagement? It’s vital that the right data is gathered and that the cycle begins again at stage one.

Bad engagement matters. A clear purpose is needed or: time can be wasted; people’s appetite for participation cut; the organisation is damaged. Activities need to be carried out with commitment to respond or pointlessness results. The reality of engagement might be at odds with centralised strategy due to poor quality engagement, without proper coordination and shared commitment.

Inappropriate engagement activity levels might lead to ‘fatigue’, with local initiatives being asked to take part in a plethora of stuff. Engagement ceases to be meaningful if it is undertaken purely for the sake of being seen to engage. It’s important for everyone to develop a shared understanding of engagement and take a consistent approach, sharing what is happening. Where a comprehensive engagement strategy is in place, planned engagement may well fit in within existing structures and processes. If intent is genuine, organisations should want engagement activities to benefit everyone, not a few or particular sub-groups.

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