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Straight Talk. 2016.

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Straight Talk. 2016.

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In Australia, we undertake a great deal of community engagement:  We have more members of the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) than the rest of the world combined, and; across all our states, this membership is an embedded requirement in environmental, planning and major project legislation.

In addition, the newDemocracy Foundation - a not-for-profit research organisation dedicated to promoting deliberative democracy - has kicked major goals in signing up governments to run Citizens Juries to weigh up and deliberate on big issues, including the late night economy, the nuclear fuel cycle, and municipal budgets.

So, it is safe to say, that we Australians  ‘get’ community engagement.

However, throughout the country - as across the world - Australia is experiencing a frightening phenomenon. Citizens don’t trust their governments. Nor do they trust their institutions. Nor experts. In fact, with the rise of social media and alternative sources of information, ‘fact’ has become blurred with fiction, opinion, spin and cynicism.

This poses significant challenges for community engagement.

Community-centred projects are not accepted on face value and community opposition is quickly and easily generated. As a result, motivating community participation is a difficult task as people lack confidence that their feedback will be heard or will have an impact.

On the other end of the spectrum, those who do participate are generally highly motivated and articulate individuals whose voices are often skewed by their anger. 

And what about the rest of us – like most of us – who simply don’t have the time to be involved, even though stuff will affect us?

As community engagers, our confidence in enabling universal participation through opportunity and access is often challenged. How do we know that we have effectively reached out and listened to community members whose voices are often silenced or forgotten?  These questions should drive the design and implementation of community engagement processes which are effective, meaningful, and have integrity.

I believe that we can do this and that it isn’t that hard.


A key in achieving these goals is focus– focus on why you need to engage; who you need to engage with; what you will do with that feedback, and; how you can engage in a way that is interesting and authentic.

Before I start telling you about how brilliant and awesome I am, I want you to know that I have made plenty of mistakes! I reckon I spent the first ten years of my career undertaking fabulous engagement but not finding out anything we didn’t already know.

I still remember the moment I became aware that I was not asking the right types of questions to the right cohorts of people.  There are a lot of moving parts to engagement; some of them are going to come easy and others you will need to work at.  Above all else, the only way to excel is to just keep trying, share stories, ask for advice, make mistakes, and keep learning. 


I well remember that icy feeling as I realised that none of the feedback I was reviewing from my excellent engagement activities was telling us anything that we didn’t already know. This wasn’t because we as a team thought we knew everything – it was because I had not asked the right questions.

We community engagement practitioners tend to focus on the doing rather than the outcomes – designing a public domain instead of creating a great place.

Borrowing from design thinking, we need to put the user (the community) at the centre of all the questions we pose. We need to prod, probe and explore the community’s attraction to place. Why do they come here? What will bring them back to this place?  How will their experience be memorable? Or different? Or important?

The three key qualitative questions regarding the community’s utilisation of place should be crafted with the following in mind:

1.       “What makes the user choose a destination to come to?”

2.      “What is it that they want to be doing, and with whom?” 

3.      “What would make them come back again?”


These questions are harder to answer and to analyse, but will yield much more revealing answers for you and the team than simply asking the community “How often do you come here?”



In addition to asking the right questions, is reflecting on  what is it we already know and who is missing from these community engagements. It is essential to provide a wide range of participatory methodologies in which fosters participation during community dialogues. This can be achieved by allowing voices representing a full breadth of issues and views to be identified, heard and nurtured. As facilitators, we need to ensure that community dialogues are not dominated or skewed by one dominant voice, but rather dialogue treats everyone with the same degree of respect.

By allowing this high degree of transparency, we– in our work - have successfully built trust in the process while minimising opportunities for stakeholders to undermine the outcomes.


So, at this point, we have explored what types of questions to ask, what is it that you already know, and who is missing from these community dialogues. The next step to ask is: How do we motivate participation? Why would people want to engage? What is the best way to do this?

Like everyone else, potential participants are busy. They are busy at work, busy juggling family, relationship responsibilities and commitments whilst also wanting to relax, exercise, socialise and engage in recreation! What seems like a nice way to fulfil your social responsibility by attending a community meeting rapidly slips down the priority list. Home and an early dinner or attend a community workshop? It’s a no brainer – give the workshop a miss!

So, by learning the hard way, I have realised the we practitioners need to go to the people and encourage them to participate.  To undertake placemaking – such as planning for the future of places, communities and precincts -  we need to employ creative intercepts and pop-ups that instantly engage participants. Activities that have been utilised and yielded positive results by our team have been:

●       Setting up a blow-up couch on a street or a mall, and inviting people to sit and complete a survey, interview or talk;

●       Using a chocolate wheel to identify specific questions and providing rewards including lollipops, free passes or trees;

●       Utilising a giant three-dimensional sculpture of the number 1, into which people can post written feedback concerning their number one community priority, or their one biggest community issue, etc.;

●       Riding trains, trams and buses to administer surveys and quizzes and engage people in conversations about a project, proposal or issue, and;

●       Setting up stalls at shopping centres, markets, fairs, train stations, bus stops, village squares, festivals – in fact, anywhere there are people!


The options are endless. Think about creating a beach, a park, a river, a waterslide, a picnic, an outdoor cinema, an adult playground, a café, a display, a walking tour, a site visit – use your imagination to design ways in which you can engage with all ages and all types of people. And if the people don’t come to you, you go to them! Oh, and don’t forget to use digital means to engage community from google cardboard virtual reality options to video.


Finally, one of my biggest lessons has been around data. How do we effectively collect feedback, analyse the data, manage it then disseminate the findings.

So, before you get all excited and race off to implement your fabulous engagement activities, sit down and think about the following:

1.      Questions: Make sure there are no double barrel-questions

2.      Data Collection and Analysis: Do you need templates? Post-it notes? Stickers? How much is qualitative and how much is quantitative? Will you be using Excel to code and theme or another application?  How much data will be generated?  Do you have the resources available to do the slog work of typing it up, for example? Will it all need to be transcribed or can some be photographed?

3.   Reporting: Who will be reading the final report? How will participants hear about what was said? Can you use the one report for multiple audiences or will it need to be published, designed and edited in multiple formats?


When we design engagement processes, we tend to focus on what our project will achieve; the activities that will be easy for us to implement, and; the timeframes that suit our corporate or decision-making schedules. This focus encourages us to forget the most important element of the participation equation – who are those we need to be talking to and what are the best ways in which we can do that. By adopting a broad range of engagement strategies to select participants,  practitioners are able reach target audiences categorised as hard to reach. In doing so, we can represent a microcosm of ALL community voices.

We are so lucky. We work on projects that have meaning and that make a real difference to people lives. And we are only limited by our imagination.  Go for it, and know that you will make mistakes, stuff up and forget things.  That’s called life.  But along the way you will learn, and grow and love what you do. 

I certainly do.


LUCY COLE-EDELSTEIN is a leading practitioner in the field of engagement.  For over thirty years, she has designed, implemented and evaluated engagement programs for the government, non-government and private sectors in areas as diverse as infrastructure, environment, policy, strategic and community planning and community services.  She has worked on traditional construction contracts, alliances and public private partnerships.  Lucy was Secretary of the International Association of Public Participation, founder of the Australian affiliate, and is a licensed trainer of the IAP2 Australasia’s Engagement Certificate.  She has won multiple IAP2 awards including International Best Project, Australasian Best Project and many others.


issue 2. summer 2016