#MonthlyMyth: Firm positioning required before engaging

Monthly myth - position before community engagement tips

It’s an easy trap to fall into, and an approach that’s often taken as a matter of course – solidify your organisation’s position before you engage with any external community or stakeholders.  While this may appear (in the short term) to make your organisation feel more ready to engage, it actually undermines many of the objectives of a robust engagement process. 

There’s a lot of internal steps an organisation needs to take before it engages externally.  These steps include getting all the project staff and decision makers on the same page about the purpose of the engagement, the negotiables and non-negotiables of the engagement, who you are engaging with and at what level. 

However, arriving at an official position before going out to engage isn’t one of them. This approach can cause the organisation to meet blocks, challenges and difficulties throughout the engagement process that seem to ‘appear out of nowhere’, but are directly caused by this one (very common) mistake.

Myth: 

Organisations can’t start engaging with the community until they have weighed up all the options and dilemmas, and confirmed their own position on the issues at hand. 

In Reality: 

Most organisations do it.  They grapple with the dilemmas within the decision at hand and start weighing up all the options straight away, well before any external engagement process has started.   Once this period is complete, they think they’re sorted and ready to engage, having dealt with all the tricky bits.  

Unfortunately, while this approach might bring a short term feeling of comfort, it makes the organisation appear like they have already made a decision, and places them in the defensive ‘DAD’ cycle (Decide – Announce - Defend).  Even if a final, ultimate decision hasn’t been made, the organisation already looks like it is in front of the issue, and, from the beginning, people feel out of step and left behind – hardly an approach that promotes trust or enhances relationships.

This mistakes causes even the most well-planned engagement process to unstuck.  As the organisation attempts to drag everyone along, time starts being wasted ‘battling’ the people you’re meant to be engaging with.   The organisation is in a tight spot – wedged into a certain position that they have already announced and are now reluctant to move on.  Your organisation now has two choices, continue to battle and potentially arrive at a poor outcome where people are so angry with you that they force a different decision entirely, or backtrack and feel a little silly.  

There’s a better way.  A more effective cycle that will help organisations to work effectively with people.  It’s all about sharing the challenges, dilemmas and options before your internal thought process has gone too far and genuinely seeking outside perspectives and bringing people on the journey with you (you can read about everyday citizens’ ability to weigh up and grapple with information – including complex or technical information- in this previous Monthly Myth Post).

Janette Hartz-Karp of 21st Century Dialogue has prepared a very useful resource explaining the difference between vicious cycles (leading to the DAD effect!) and virtuous cycles.  Note in particular the two circular cycles at the bottom of the page noting the ‘fixes that fail’, traditional community approach (vicious cycle) and the deliberative engagement approach (virtuous cycle) alternative which allows the organisation to move up the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Public Participation Spectrum and reach better outcomes.