Once upon a time, a long time ago, when the kingdom was plagued with giants and monsters and wicked issues, a wise prince went out and talked to the townsfolk to work out what to do. And they came up with a much wider range of ideas than the prince could have on his own, even with the help of his adviser, the wizard. And there’s always been a few princes doing that ever since. But we’re not all living happily ever after.
Slaying the myths that prevent more and better engagement, is the purpose of a publication from Involve and the RSA launched yesterday. To get us in the mood, one of the authors of “From Fairy Tale to Reality: dispelling the myths around citizen engagement”, Edward Andersson, Deputy Director of Involve, gamely dressed up as a fairy tale peasant.
The five myths are:
1. engagement is too expensive;
2. citizens aren’t up to it;
3. engagement only works for easy issues;
4. citizen power is a floodgate we should avoid at all costs;
5. citizens don’t want to be involved, they just want good services.
Of course there are answers to each of these. However, the thing about myths is that they often contain an element of truth. I think we have to acknowledge that getting community engagement right can actually be quite hard. You have to engage the right people at the right time in the right way with the right questions, on a continuous basis. There are answers to each individual problem, but getting it all right, all at once is like training a dragon (they’re really powerful but a bit unpredictable and things can get rather hot). So stories showing how it can go well, or what ills may befall you if it is done badly or not at all, can be very powerful in inspiring, warning and making it fun.
So what are the stories that may change people’s thinking on engagement?
Enabling, or allowing, people to participate in ‘service delivery’, whether it’s managing their own health and care, running local facilities or volunteering is worth an enormous amount. Often it’s not costed, but in one of the examples from the publication, ‘Let’s clear Estonia’, citizens in one day cleared 10,000 tonnes of illegally dumped rubbish at a cost of £0.5m, which would have cost the state £20m and taken three years. That led on to many other forms of engagement.
Closer to home, the Francis report and mid-Staffordshire illustrate some of the costs of not engaging. The cost of 400 lives as well as the suffering, time and money (£13m for the enquiry alone), could have been avoided if the patients and public had been properly listened to earlier.
Other costs of not engaging include all the waste from policy u-turns, the protests at cuts and closures which early and broad engagement can often avoid and expensive initiatives which get nowhere through lack of buy-in.
There are lots of stories to counter the other myths, too. The ‘AmericaSpeaks’ example from the publication is a real giant slayer. In June 2010, 3,500 Americans across the country spent a day discussing the complex issue of how to deal with the public deficit. People engaged with the issues and with each other and both liberals and conservatives moderated their views as a result.
Just doing engagement doesn’t guarantee you a fairytale ending. There are all sorts of scary monsters hiding in the forest. But if you don’t ever learn how to engage with them you will never create the magic the public deserves. So get out there and start kissing frogs. Now.