Business as Unusual – Assessing Engagement to Ensure it is Purposeful

There is increasing recognition across government agencies and non-government organisations that getting input from stakeholders is critical to shaping effective policies, services and improvement processes.

For engagement to be meaningful and beneficial for both organisations and the stakeholders involved, it needs to be done with clarity of purpose, and with the right tools for this purpose. COVID-19 social distancing requirements have meant we’ve all needed to ensure we’re using technological tools that are fit for purpose.

It was an opportune time to invite Founder and Managing Director of Engage2, Amelia Loye to join ARTD in our most recent Business as Unusual online session. This rich and interactive conversation considered how we can purposefully engage with the communities we work in.

1. What is engagement?

Engagement, Amelia describes, is an interaction, or an exchange of information. Purposeful engagement can be conceptualised as a two-way flow of communication that fosters trust and builds meaningful relationships that offer value and mutual benefit.

Purposeful engagement is a collaborative process, arguably requiring more time and more resources. Specifically, it is a move away from activities that end with ‘closing the loop’, towards creating a continuing exchange and/or conversation.

2. What stays as restrictions ease?

Like many during this time, ARTD have had to adapt how we connect, learn and build relationships with others from the confines of our own homes.

With social distancing restrictions in place, everyone has had to ignite their curiosity and enhance their digital learning by reacquainting themselves with various known software and applications as well as trialling new technologies.

As we consider and make choices about which methods to use, we are mindful of who we are engaging and how the engagement activities will generate outcomes and strengthen our relationships. We are asking: when is face-to-face engagement important and how can we use digital technologies to engage in meaningful and productive ways?

3. Finding the right tools for engagement

During COVID-19, it has been exciting to expand and diversify our knowledge and use of digital tools to support purposeful engagement. For example, we’ve been using Miro, a collaborative online whiteboard platform designed for remote and distributed teams, within breakout rooms during Zoom sessions. We found this allowed participants to document their ideas and thoughts. Using these tools enhanced the process and discussions beyond what would have been possible if there had of been only one scribe and each speaker taking turns.

These are only two of the many digital tools available to support virtual engagement – that is engagement that happens live online in real-time. Amelia reflected that people often ask ‘What are the tools I should use?’, and her answer is, ‘It depends on your purpose, the needs of your stakeholders, and context for engagement.’

In response to being asked this question, Amelia developed the EngageTech Spectrum to complement the IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum. The EngageTech Spectrum sets out:

  • the way engagement technologies (inner semicircle) can be used to engage at each purpose of engagement (outer semicircle) defined by the International Association for Public Participation
  • the fundamental requirements for good engagement – the management of relationships and information generated through engagement and issues raised.

Amelia explained that her current toolkit includes over 79 tools, all of which work for different engagement purposes and have relevance to different providers. Purposeful engagement is about learning to use the ‘right’ tool for your objectives and stakeholders, not the one we personally ‘prefer’, which at times can mean a steep learning curve.

The more we value the opportunity to exchange information and explore issues, the more we open ourselves up to the possibility of learning from others and building a climate for better engagement.

4. Evaluating engagement

Taking this a step further, as evaluators, we want to know not only that more government agencies and NGOs are engaging on questions of policy and service delivery, we want to help organisations understand how effective their processes are, and the impact achieved.

In 2018, ARTD drew on our work with Amelia to publish a discussion paper on Assessing Engagement to outline a conceptual framework for assessing the data collected about issues, and the quality and impact of engagement processes, including how these issues are considered and responded to

Monitoring will enable government and NGOs to track how well engagement is being done and support transparent and responsive processes. It will allow them to refine and track their processes as they go and to respond to emerging needs. Further, evaluation could help demonstrate accountability, build the evidence base about how engagement works, and strengthen future engagement processes.

5. Concluding remarks

As evaluators, we can reflect on how inclusive our choices have been and we can proactively apply an ‘equity lens’ to the how we engage stakeholders.

Having radical empathy is not about letting people off the hook…. It’s about being kinder, braver, more honest and more generous… In action, it means willingness to contemplate the decisions and actions of others with consideration rather than condemnation, with compassion, rather than scorn. [Cheryl Strayed]

Purposeful engagement is a process of two-way communication to build a meaningful relationship, where parties mutually engage for mutual benefit or value.

If you’re keen to discuss all things engagement or evaluating engagement, reach out to Amelia at Engage2 or Jade Maloney at ARTD

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