A big buzzword for the past couple of years has been ‘engagement‘ Apparently it’s not enough now that citizens sit still and patiently let us provide what we’ve decided they need; now they have to make the effort to tell us about it. As with all fashionable ideas, an industry has spawned on the back of it and it’s difficult to avoid the onslaught of experts and consultants who want to help us engage and enthuse our customers.
Well, that sounds nice, doesn’t it? High performing and positive organisations are engaging, therefore we must engage. And if people aren’t letting us engage we’ll jolly well consult them until they tell us why. (translation – we’ll get them one way or the other. Either they come to us, or we’ll survey them until they submit.)
So, there are plenty of people out there offering to tell us why ordinary citizens don’t engage, and how we can ‘reach’ them. Reading through most of the literature though, what most of these things boil down to is this; “Are citizens failing to engage? We’ll show you how to make your preferred methods of consultation and involvement impossible to ignore!” (the Borg model of consultation – Resistance Is Futile.)
Er, excuse me, but isn’t that backwards? The question is, “Are you failing to be engaging? Let me explain how your citizens are already telling you what you want to know.”
A lot of the time we agonise over how certain groups are ‘hard to reach’. The sharp-elbowed middle classes, we say, will always make their views known because they are intelligent, articulate and know how to write letters to their MP. OK, that’s true. And that would indeed be a huge problem, if letters were the only thing we knew how to process. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Certain demographic types, we say, aren’t engaging in the democratic process, or they’re not engaging in dialogue, or they’re not engaging in community action. Oh really? That’s possibly because the only types of democracy, dialogue and activity we monitor are the ones we recognise. Too often, the only ones we recognise are the ones we control. They may not vote because, hey, what difference does it make? One way or another you’ll still end up with a politician in charge. They may not leave feedback or fill in a survey because, you know what, it’s not their job to run the library, it’s yours. You open the damn building and I’ll turn up and borrow books, OK? Let’s not complicate things. They may not be on the volunteer rota at the community centre, but they will walk the neighbour’s kids to school so she can get to her work shift on time.
So there are two issues. One, we only process feedback and engagement that arrives through channels we know how to use. Second, we only count feedback and engagement that we have invited. It isn’t other people that are hard to reach; it’s us. The ordinary citizen, regardless of class or background or income, communicates and engages on a daily basis with their friends and peer groups. You only have to get on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Pinterest or Instagram to see what matters to people, how they feel about it and what they think ought to be done. The reason they aren’t talking to us about it is simply because we’re not paying attention. If you think this is too heavily slanted towards social media channels, try this; people talk to each other at bus stops, in the pub, at the canteen, in the queue at Morrisons, at playgroup, after yoga class, at the school gates. They most definitely have opinions and are happy to share them. We don’t hear it because we’re not there. We expect them to come to us if they want to share.
So instead of complaining that people won’t engage, how about we work on being more engaging?