Three keys to a great deliberative community engagement process

Learn more about designing a deliberative engagement process at Innovation in Community Engagement, in Sydney 13-14 November 2017

by Max Hardy, Principal, Max Hardy Consulting and Associate, Collaboration for Impact

DELIBERATIVE ENGAGEMENT is an approach to community engagement that is becoming increasingly popular. For this we can largely thank academics like Prof Lyn Carson and her website www.activedemocracy.net as well as the positive experiences of participants. Some recent recognition for exemplary projects by the IAP2 might also have something to do with it!

Having designed and facilitated over 30 deliberative panels (think ‘citizens’ juries’, but there are other forms) since 1998, I have seen how well this can work. I love watching panels do the deep dive. It’s great to see them learn and feel better connected with issues and people as a result. I also get a thrill from seeing how the output of deliberative panels really can contribute toward positive, tangible outcomes for the community.

However, there are many more variables to deliberative engagement process than you might think, and it’s vitally important to make sure you invest some time designing the process.

Here are three things that in my experience are essential to get right:

1. The remit

The ‘remit’ is simply the task that the deliberative panel is given to respond to. But it’s surprisingly easy for a remit to be poorly framed and/or not thought through, for example, a remit that is:

  • overly narrow, or too broad
  • biased (and which therefore generates scepticism)
  • something that the sponsors of the process (ultimate decision-makers/governance bodies) are not firmly committed to, or which they don’t fully understand
    or …
  • something so complex there is not enough time for the panel to deliberate over it in sufficient depth.

I was involved in one project where various interest groups and stakeholders were so divided it took nine months to gain agreement on what the remit should be. Thankfully once we gained agreement the rest of the process ran smoothly. But it could have been a disaster—one that certain parties would no doubt have undermined, and where both the process and the outcome could have been subject to public questioning.

So make sure you get your remit right; give yourself time to frame worthwhile questions for the panel to grapple with, and build broad support for the remit among key stakeholders.

2. Evidence

Deliberative processes rely on weighing up evidence. Evidence is brought by panel participants (their own lived experiences) as well as a diverse range of specialists on the topic concerned. But there can be problems if the presentation of evidence is not carefully planned. These are some of the things that can go wrong:

  • Bad timing of the panel can result in crucial evidence being missed, simply because a key presenter could be on leave or otherwise unavailable.
  • It can be difficult to get the right people to present their evidence. Sometimes it is sufficient to interview people and show a video—but of course they cannot be scrutinised by panel members if they are not available in person at the time.
  • Onlookers might consider the evidence as being ‘stacked’ in favour of one preferred outcome. This certainly won’t build trust in the process.
  • Sometimes the evidence is not presented in a way which is helpful to the panel. I have seen presenters who are very interesting and entertaining, but not well briefed about their job; they provide lots of information, but it may not actually help the panel to address the remit.

So, start lining up key speakers early before locking in dates for your hearing days.

Sponsors’ intentions

There have been times in my experience when sponsors have been challenging to work with. Because the panellists are randomly selected, part of the appeal of deliberative processes to sponsors can be that they see them as a way of avoiding, or not engaging with people with strong interests. This is unhelpful and dangerous. Even more dangerous is the hope of some sponsors of using a deliberative panel to get the outcome they most want. It is critical to the process that sponsors be curious and open. There may be some parameters, such as budget limitations and alignment with certain policies, but there needs to be something real at stake that can be influenced by the process.

So, it’s really important to work with sponsors to be genuinely curious and open to the recommendations; and if they are not, it is best not to do a pretend process.

Conclusion

Remit, evidence, sponsors’ intentions: these are just three elements to a successful deliberative design process. Many other things need to be thought through, too—such as:

  • the composition of the panel and the recruitment method
  • the scheduling of hearings and deliberation, and
  • the amount of time for deliberation compared with time for presentations (content delivery).

Learn more

This November, I’ll be facilitating an intensive, one-day workshop on designing a deliberative engagement process, along with Danielle Annells, as part of Collaboration for Impact’s Innovation in Community Engagement event in Sydney. I’m looking forward to spending a day with many of my highly valued colleagues in the community engagement space to share our experience and learn from each other.

Find out more about Collaboration for Impact’s two-day event, Innovation in Community Engagement, featuring a one day conference and a one-day intensive workshop on deliberative engagement by clicking here.

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