I've been writing for some time about how people - not methods, structures and procedures - are the basis for successful partnerships and participation. However, it took a seminar on collaboration software last week to jolt me into thinking more seriously about relationship-based engagement.
I've concluded that this term, which may seem tautologous (as in self-evident), could help us think about what's working, and what's not, in the field.
The seminar was organised by Inovem, where the team who originally developed Smartgroups have now created an impressive suite of email and web-based tools for information, communication and collaboration. Part of the day focussed on case studies within organisations, and part on wider public engagement projects.
My role was to kick-off with a keynote putting e-participation into the wider context of the theory and practice of engagement ... and I found it really difficult to write. I dumped the first effort- written for the seminar pack - in favour of a second effort here (both pdfs). The real insights - as usual - came from listening to other people at the event. Anyway, here's an explanation of my route to relationship-based engagement as a potentially useful term. Click the slide images to expand.
In my first draft I focussed on the need to think about the purpose of any participation or collaboration, the people involved, and only then about process - the stages and methods. Context and culture is also crucial. Drew Mackie and I have used that model - adapted from one by Ann Holmes - in the Engagement Game, which helps people plan engagement processes and choose appropriate methods. These may be polls, surveys, face-to-face workshops - or online forums and panels. I went on to say that engagement is not just about methods, but relationships. In order to develop these we need to shift from formal ways of communicating and put greater emphasis on conversations and stories in order to build trust.
It is people who engage - or don’t. The foundation of any type of engagement is trust, which comes from developing a good relationship with the other party. We believe in trusted sources of information; we will listen and respond to options if we believe they are put forward in good faith; and we will only collaborate if we have confidence that the other party will deliver on their promises.
In addition, we need to think about engagement in terms of networks, rather than just one-to-one or one-to-many relationship between power-holders and participants, or core groups and wider stakeholders.
We need to map these networks in order to understand them, create an open culture, identify and support connectors. We can then start to think about the range of tools - online and off - that are appropriate. We should become sensitive to the fact that some of them are essentially top-down and controlled by agencies who are broadcasting to us, or inviting us to contribute to options develop on their terms.
Other tools, created by intermediaries, aim to develop trusted spaces. The more recent tools for blogging, podcasting and publishing video provide the means for people to develop their personal voices.
At present a lot of e-participation and e-democracy projects developed by public agencies are based on officially-controlled sites. It's a bit like saying "please come to our public meeting, or respond to the survey that our interviewers are carrying out". Nothing wrong with that, provided (going to my first slide above) there is a clear purpose for engagement and the agency have taken trouble in understanding who may be involved and what their interests and communication preferences may be.
This top-down engagement probably won't work, however, if the context is uncongenial. Maybe the agency hasn't listened and delivered in the past, for example. If public agencies don't create compelling reasons for people to engage, in places they can trust, I think people will increasingly use personal media for campaigning and influence and create their own places.
I'm not sure my presentation got these ideas across well at the seminar. I don't really like doing keynotes at the start of an event, particularly when it is about engagement and interaction. I would much rather join in conversations. I suppose one advantage is that it does force you to try and create some sort of narrative that may be the basis for later exchanges (comment welcome on this item of course).
I certainly gained some insights from the other presentations, all available here. There were impressive stories about how Inovem's software is being used for partnerships, consultation, and team working. I didn't get a fee for the presentation, so feel free to say I'm impressed by the way that the systems map on to the theory and practice of engagement as developed in recent years. There's a good article here about the work of Bath and North East Somerset Council, one of those presenting.
But here comes the slight rub. As I was leaving the event I fell into conversation with another participation practitioner who does a mix of face-to-face workshops and online engagement. He said something like this...
There was a lot in the presentations about the tools and systems, but precious little about the processes of building relationships. There's a real danger that as the technology gets better it will start to define participation methodology ... missing out the people. And it won't work.
This remark really brought to the fore some of the concerns I had felt during the event. Many speakers had made reference to people and cultural issues being crucial, but amidst all the Powerpoint we didn't have a chance to explore those. That needs conversations and anecdotes rather than bullet points. What we got was a lot about tools-based engagement ... hardly surprising, I suppose, because that's what Inovem is selling.
I suspect that the excellent case studies we heard were successful precisely because the organisations involved were attuned to the relationship issues, and could created trusted environments into which to bring good tools. That won't be the case in all circumstances, where the first methods to be used should be aimed at building trust and relationships. How to do that is something I'll continue to explore. At least I feel I've got a working title.
Previously: Web 2.0, participation and e-democracy