By Sharon Fraser, former manager, Go Goldfields
With Innovation in Community Engagement on in Sydney on 13-14 November, we thought it would be a good idea to ask, “Just what do we mean by innovation in community engagement?”
First, a little story
This time last year at Go Goldfields we were working with a group of women who were on a quest to ensure that every child in their community could have the advantages their children were enjoying—that every child could aspire and achieve. The women wanted to engage the parents they never saw at community events—the parents who were doing it tough, the ones at risk of losing their children or whose children already been removed and put in out-of-home care.
We organised for a Family Services manager to work with them, to help the women find and connect with these families experiencing vulnerability.
Afterwards, we asked how it had gone.
They looked despondent. “Oh it’s not possible,” they said. The Family Services manager, with the best of intentions, had told them that these clients had such complex issues—family violence, mental health and drug and alcohol issues—that they really do not have the time or the capacity to engage with a group of mums who wanted to change things for children in the community.
This classic tale of non–engagement is one of many similar stories that have raised important questions for me around community engagement. Questions like:
- Who decides who can engage with whom in the community and why?
- How do we genuinely share power with the community—including people whose lives we are affecting—so community is sharing in the development, in the decision-making and in the leadership with government and service leaders?
- What capability or skills are needed—by everyone—to be able to share power and make informed decisions together?
- What other resources are needed for genuine inclusion and involvement of the community—especially when innovation or real change is required?
- What leadership skills are needed—in the community and in ourselves—to ensure that community members can be collaborators in our journey of social change? And how do we bring that leadership forth— in the real world, everyday?
Many say they are engaging the community but what this frequently means is they are connecting with, coordinating with and including the community … but THEY NOT REALLY COLLABORATING!
At Go Goldfields, we have been exploring these issues, sometimes with great leaps forward, sometimes at a crawl and at other times with great leaps backward! It’s never a straightforward process. Because true innovation in community engagement is unpredictable, it’s disruptive and it’s full of surprises.
So, what have we done well?
1. We have SHARED POWER
This is without a doubt the key underpinning ‘X’ factor in our success at Go Goldfields. Here are some examples:
We invited community members to join the work as ‘neighbours’, as ‘consultants’ or as ‘collaborators’. For those who wanted to be ‘collaborators’—ie, be a part of our designing and decision making—we provided a training package, we engaged them with the local council as volunteers, and we set a key contact/support person for them within our team.
We created a ‘Collaborative Table’ where government, business, service leaders and community would come together to design activities and make decisions. The Collaborative Table includes people from government departments, service providers, a peak body and a research institution as well as community members who have identified themselves as collaborators. There are sixteen of them, including eight people who live locally. All have a unique commitment to delivering social change in this community. All have committed to bringing all that they have to the table both personally and professionally.
We changed the structures and processes of meetings and partnering, to allow everyone to feel equal. We have running sheets (not agendas) for meetings, which present the work to do in a more accessible format. We have notes (instead of minutes) with everything presented in simple language and pictorially on one A3 page (with the brilliant result that not only do community members read the minutes but others do as well).
Sharing power means having equity in all processes. Sure, it’s a challenge to deliver, it requires constant attention and careful ‘holding’, but it is well worth the journey.
2. We have fostered new leadership from within the community
Working together as part of a social change process, we have developed leadership and seen new people rise from within the community. While there was never any intention to exclude traditional civic leaders, the reality is that they are the success stories of the current social environment and may not be as committed to changing it as others who are less satisfied.
At times the development and nurturing of ‘new leaders’ has been seen as a threat. As one of the young and emerging leaders said at a community leadership session, “Community leadership will change around here one funeral at a time.” The problem has been tackled by engaging current leaders in the development of future leaders. Not all civic leaders have embraced this but there has been enough support to deal with the pushback, and these leaders have become strong voices and advocates for the current work within the ‘establishment’.
The pushback from one major service provider remains an issue but it has been dealt with by having others speak for our work, by engaging the service in all aspects of the work for children, youth, families, family violence and/or work readiness and by inviting them to chair and ‘lead’ aspects of the work.
3. We have engaged people with lived experience
Much of the magic here has been around identifying leaders who have deep lived experience of the issues being tackled but who are not currently still in an active phase of this experience.
These community members have been defined as ‘experts’. This has challenged some professionals who define expertise as professional qualifications and experience. But the community experts have shown incredible leadership at moving some of these professional experts—through conversation, commitment and delivering for, and with, others.
People are people and relationship is the answer
Sometimes engagement is simple.
Fortunately my opening story has a happy ending. Two playgroup leaders from among the group decided that they would engage the families experiencing vulnerability by going up to parents with preschool children they did not know, saying ‘hi’ … and simply seeing where things went from there.
They focused on building relationships—not on getting parents to playgroup. And the result? All playgroups are now full and there are two new groups starting. It’s an amazing result from a community where playgroups were generally attended by people who were all part of the same social group.
When we come to the work as people first and professionals second we can break down the artificial barriers affecting how we engage the community. This means sharing our own story, our doubts and concerns, as well as our vision, values and beliefs. There are some who struggle with this. That’s fine. These people have important roles to play in service delivery or problem solving. They may be great on a working group but are maybe not suitable for the higher governance tables.
Innovation is not only allowing but celebrating and being curious about difference. No one’s voice is invalid, we just need to get the balance right.
About the author
Director Sharon Fraser Consulting
B. App. Sci. (SP); MBM; GAICD
Sharon has a strong interest in improving outcomes within communities. This has developed over many years starting with life as a Speech Pathologist with a focus on acquired injury through to the most recent stint as the General Manager of Go Goldfields, a social development platform aimed at getting everyone to work together to achieve improved outcomes for children, youth and families. Although Go Goldfields has been challenging work it has been a great opportunity to seek out and maximise the strengths within the community, the service system, government departments and business. This work has also provided amazing opportunities to learn how to achieve meaningful social change by applying Collective Impact in the Australian context. Although she believes she still has many lessons to learn, Sharon brings a voice of experience in implementing Collective Impact within a community at a time when others are trying to work out how to do just that. Sharon is currently transitioning to a consultancy role with a focus on supporting communities to achieve meaningful social change through true community based collaboration.
 We based the training package on some work of Liz Weaver’s in the Tamarack Institute in the USA.
 Initially this did not work because although we had prepared the community for this new way of working, we had not prepared the government and service leaders who are used to leading and deciding. So we did some work exploring what power people brought to the table and ‘reset the table’ with a two day event putting in both skill development and design for the future.