Blog: public involvement is not built on one-night stands

Some time ago I took part in an event where the organisers thought it would be a good idea to try something new.

As well as the usual plenary speakers and workshops, we were going to get people there to text and tweet questions which speakers and panellists could answer during the day. Sounded perfectly laudable in that oh-so-common eerie, pre-event idealism that we have all been party to in our time.

Come the day it all went just a bit awry. It’s true that a large number of the audience had mobile phones. But did they text or tweet? No. Cue ill-fated crash course in social media by the organisers; helped – or rather not helped – by those in the audience who claimed to be the leading exponents of new technology.

The low-level murmur of frustration in the room was beautifully broken by a mildly bemused woman in the front row: ‘Can’t we just put our hands up?’ she asked.

I remembered this story last night as I read a rather cheering report by The Participation Agency entitled ‘Fostering Meaningful Engagement’

They also have a blog here.

The report is based on a survey of organisation across the voluntary, public and private sectors. It looks at what these organisations are doing now, some of the challenges faced, but also their aspirations for what they are terming public engagement.

I was heartened to read that people were looking forward to their organisations doing more, collaborating more and being more targeted and strategic. Also that people felt there would be an increase in co-production of public services. A good proportion of respondents – 46% – said they felt that engagement was having a ‘transformative’ effect in their organisation. But I also agree with the report authors in their

observation that people do tend to overlook and undervalue if not under-utilise the means of evaluation for this at their disposal.

I’m less inclined to cheer about the clarion call by the respondents for more creative methods and tools for engagement. Over 50% said they wanted new tools. On the other hand, there was a strong recognition of the need to develop better evidence about what is effective.

I am reminded of the pilot’s adage that there are old pilots and bold pilots but no old, bold pilots. In a similar vein, I would say that in public engagement we should only care about tools that work. Thirst for the new (and don’t get me wrong I’m as thirsty for a new idea as anyone) can be quenched. But it can so easily be at the expense of the old and effective, with little evidence or careful thought behind it (my story being an example).

It can also betray a lack of appreciation that at the core of public engagement is the daily commitment and discipline (perhaps grind at times) that goes with building relationships over time. It’s lasting, fruitful relationships we are after. Not smash and grab raids on the public consciousness which lots of engagement work seems to veer towards when not thought carefully about. Truth be told I was therefore also cheered up by the fact that people thought they would be doing less surveys in future.

Anyway, to put it succinctly: meaningful public engagement is not built on one-night stands.

So keep innovating by all means. But as you do, think about your new idea and ask yourself whether it might be better to simply ask people to put their hand up.

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