Why engagement needs to change

A well-used phrase of mine – which bewilders my kids – is: if a tree falls in a forest and no-one’s around to hear it, how do you know it’s fallen?

It’s not intended as a philosophical question. In a work context, it’s used to stress the importance of letting people know what you’re doing, rather than just doing it and expecting a response.

So, if you’re creating a website, let people know it’s there. If a council makes plans that affect people’s lives, telling them early and offering a chance to feedback should be part of that process.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? It is to us, and colleagues and clients work every day to engage the public on important things that affect their lives.

Looking more widely, however, there remains a gap created by complexity and exacerbated by a lack of awareness.

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Three thoughts from the #housingwhitepaper roadshow

“I am a man desperately in need of allies to help build the homes that we can agree are desperately needed in this country.”

Gavin Barwell, Housing Minister, 2 March 2017

I was in Taunton this week to see the housing minister’s white paper roadshow.

Gavin Barwell is at least the eighth housing minister I’ve seen in action since 2004. Five of those were on similar visits to the South West when I worked at the HCA.

To say that he’s inherited a tough gig is an understatement. The Housing White Paper has had a mixed response, which isn’t surprising for a sector with so many interested parties.

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Collaboration: more than a buzzword

Calls for ‘collaboration’ across the housing sector are hitting high levels. I have attended conferences recently at which panelists have insisted that collaboration is key to our future. At one event covering areas ranging from the performance of office buildings to the future of cities, speakers used the phrase six times in an hour.

Articles and blog posts stressing its importance are abundant. Google ‘collaboration and housing’ to see for yourself. And local and national government call for a collaborative approach from employees and partners. This can sometimes feel like a call for inspiration.

Meaning of collaboration

In an era of networks, for an industry that has thrived on partnership working, this makes sense. The challenges facing the sector are too big for any organisation to face alone. Those that work together stand a better chance of success.

It is difficult for anyone who works in the sector to argue against this sentiment. But defining good practice in this area – let along making it work – is more challenging. Statements like ‘collaboration is key’ are often used without any sign of how this could happen.

Collaboration between organisations frequently misses the input of the communities or people affected by what they are trying to achieve. And conflict seems built into the system, with some groups feeling their views are ignored. When this happens, positions become entrenched and delivery can grind to a halt.

If we are to benefit from a collaborative approach, there needs to be wide understanding of what good collaboration looks like. And organisations must prepare to change mindsets and structures to embrace it.

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New era, same principles for engagement

I gave this presentation at JBP’s Bristol office on Monday night about how digital can be used to support engagement activity. The event was attended by professionals who work in planning, development and legal practice.

I was delighted that comms manager from East Devon Drew Aspinwall joined me to talk about activity that has taken place to support the development of the new community at Cranbrook. Listening to the conversation afterwards reinforced my view that Cranbook is out on its own in terms of the pace and scale of delivery and level of support it has locally. Partners can be proud of the community they’re helping to create.

My slides were put together using Haikudeck, which is great for clear and engaging content slides and easy to use if you know what you’re going to say. Like many tools, it seems to have its own quirky ways which can cause frustrations and I have struggled with sharing it and getting it to render properly in this blog which has added a couple of hours onto my day. I hope to get more up to speed with it soon!

My slides are below.

More detailed notes used with the slides can be found on Haikudeck.

Can housing bridge the digital divide?

I got an insight today into the role the affordable housing sector could play in getting more people online, which is one of the aims set out in the Government’s recently launched digital strategy.

I was with comms colleagues who work for providers across the South West, talking about how digital media can be used to build stronger relationships with key stakeholders, make transactions more efficient and cost effective and convey messages to a wider, more significant audience. More than anything, social media can be used to achieve the ‘gold standard’ of two-way communications, where organisations listen and respond to what they are hearing in a way that satisfies their audiences, and ultimately supports their business.

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Links I like 11.10.22

‘Engagement’: fashionable yet bankrupt – Canalside View
Martin Weigel writes at length about the industry-wide misuse of the term ‘engagement’ and hits the nail squarely on the head a number of times. The problems he cites in his nine ‘bad habits’ of engagement highlight his main point that the phrase has become so widely used, yet without any common definition or metrics to back it up, that it has come to mean everything and nothing. It’s well-considered, insightful and well worth a read.

You know you’ve blogged too long about local government when – We Love Local Government
Congratulations to the team behind this blog, who recently had their 100,000th visitor and are preparing a post to mark its anniversary soon (as I understand). This is a republication of an earlier post, which found its way into The Guardian, but is linked here because it makes a particularly apt ‘engagement’ point of its own.

‘You know you’ve worked in Local Government for too long when: you see chatting to the person next to you on the bus as a community engagement exercise.’

Using unnecessary capital letters for words like Local Government is a point I’d like to add to their list, but congratulations to the team for producing a great daily digest of life at a local council.