Driving decisions

Canberra recently heard from its first citizens’ jury, which told the ACT government how third party insurance laws should be changed. The news would have passed me by (poor old car insurance is not the most exciting topic) had I not learnt about citizen juries during an IAP2 community engagement course a few years ago. It meant that the government had asked a group of Canberrans to decide which insurance scheme would work best, and had promised to implement their choice. Handing over that kind of decision-making capability isn’t something governments do all that often.

Before I started the course, I thought I knew what community engagement (or as it’s sometimes called, stakeholder engagement or public participation) was. Letting the community know what was going on! Keeping them engaged. I think most of the people with whom I did the course felt the same–we all worked in communications and PR, we were across it. Hell, most of us had stakeholder engagement in our titles, or at the least in our job description. Which makes the confusion in the room all the more funny. By about halfway through the first day it was clear we had no idea what our instructor (Michelle Feenan, who is wonderful btw) was on about.

Turns out that community engagement is involving people in decisions that are going to impact them. The course showed us how to figure out who should be involved and how to match a group’s level of participation to a project, based on IAP2’s public participation spectrum. It took me a few days to get my head around all of this. Some of my course mates were event getting angry, so frustrated were they that there was more to ‘public participation’ than they had anticipated.

Looking back I think our shared confusion shows how infrequently community engagement principles are used in public projects or policy initiatives. A consultation period is usually included in plans for major projects (and required by law in many public projects). From what I’ve seen though, by the time it rolls around a lot of the project details have been decided. That’s why I was really interested to see a citizens’ jury being used–it’s a technique that sits right at the end of the spectrum, where participants are given full decision-making power (rather than contributing information to a decision).

The idea behind community engagement is better decisions are made when you involve the people who are affected by your plan. Learning all about it improved my work no end. From small things–simply pausing before launching into something, and thinking about who needs to know about it and why–to giving me the ability to better plan for big projects. The course is one of the best things I’ve done as a comms practitioner, and it would be great to see more examples of Aussie governments embracing community engagement in the future.

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