Engagement with the people that you provide services for is a key element of how you identify the outcomes that your organisation is judged on. The quality and method of engagement is one of the key factors in determining whether or not an organisation is listening to or broadcasting at the people that use its services.
This morning the Birmingham Improvement Panel met to discuss progress that is being made to meet the recommendations made by the Kerslake review in 2014. Although the Kerlsake review is almost entirely focussed on Birmingham one of the key elements of the review dwelt on how Birmingham engages with its population; the answer to that is likely to be relevant to all organisations.
One of the often-repeated phrases is the need to engage with people in a new way; as yet nobody has really managed to outline what a new method of engagement is. As tempting as it is to come up with a new solution to any problem frequently the best solution is a combination of what has been done before.
The key element to proper engagement is building a relationship with the people you’re engaging and doing that over time. Relationships involve creating trust between the people involved and a shared understanding of each other, that means getting to know individuals.
A key element to building trust is also about engaging with people in an environment where they feel safe and where they can influence the conversation.
So using Birmingham as an example how does that happen?
With an authority the size of Birmingham the needs and interests of different communities are likely to be vast, that doesn’t mean that engagement needs to be complicated. The principles of engagement should be the same in all organisations.
The most basic rule of engaging with people is go to where they are and ask them what they want. In all likely hood the people that you talk to will not restrict their response to your organisation. People don’t recognise your organisational boundary, people shouldn’t have to understand organisational structures.
Going to find people where they are can happen in two ways. It can happen online, it can happen face to face. Either way it’s not going to be quick and it’s unlikely that you’ll get answers to the questions you might already have. You might find people are quite hostile, you might find that people don’t trust you. If you are willing to keep going back and can go back with answers to questions you’ve been asked trust will develop.
Once again going back to Birmingham there are obvious pressing problems that the authority needs to engage with people on. How the budget can be made to work, why children’s services just don’t work and how Birmingham can increase skills and employment.
I would suggest that if you want to engage with people on those questions then don’t go out to people with those questions. Although these are clear organisational priorities are these the priorities for the people that live and work in Birmingham?
The first process in engagement is to find out what people see as their priorities. Go out to groups where people meet and ask them what the issues that influence their lives are. Listen to the discussions those groups have and how they arrive at their issues.
Set up online forums where people can set out their priorities and watch how people discuss this between themselves.
Don’t hold your own large meeting where you talk about your priorities. If you want to hold a meeting then make sure you are not the focus of it.
The issues that are raised might not be something you can directly influence. It is very likely that they are issues that organisations you work with can influence.
Once you can boil down some key priorities go away and find out what the true picture is in your organisation. If people say a lack of housing is a problem then find out what the situation with housing is.Then come back to people with a concise outline of need so you can begin a discussion on what you can collectively do about these priorities. This isn’t about justifying what you do; it’s providing a common understanding to inform discussion.
The next stage is to sit down with the same groups, people or even online communities and begin to agree what a successful resolution of these priorities would look like. What are the outcomes you collectively want to achieve?
When you know the outcomes you can decide together the best people to deliver change. Is your organisation the best vehicle of delivery? Is there anyone else you work with that knows how to do this better?
The final stage of engagement is a clear timeframe to come back to people and honestly explain who has done what. If things haven’t worked then come back and tell people. If you’ve worked with other people to make change then be honest about what they have done.
Just to be clear the above is the first steps you take to learn how to engage with people and how you begin to build relationships with people and groups.
This is a slow process and it takes a lot of individual time to make it a valid process. It also might not answer the questions that you need answers to. It will put you in a much more positive position when you need answers in the future.
This has been focussed on local authorities but the simple process of allowing people to shape how you engage with people and what you engage about is the key to all organisations developing a trusting relationship.