This is a guest post from Mairi Welman.
Mairi is a career strategic planning and communications professional with over 30 years’ experience across a variety of industries within the private and public sectors.
Mairi has helped Channel’s clients to meaningfully engage input on their projects. Clients trust Channel to build long-term relationships with stakeholders and government partners. She has proven time and again that strategy builds trust.
Guest Blog | Mairi Welman, Strategic Communications & Engagement Advisor
When you get right down to it, the goal of public engagement is to build trust.
For a good faith engagement, you need to trust that if I ask you for your input, I’ll actually listen to it and take it into account, and that it will somehow affect the final outcome. Otherwise, what’s the point? You’ve wasted your time and it looks like I’ve just been going through the motions and ticking boxes.
The easiest part of public engagement planning is coming up with cool inventive ways to solicit feedback, be it online or in person. Unfortunately, this is the step that outcome-focused people will jump right into. But if your engagement is going to be strategic, and provide actionable information, the first planning conversation you have must be about whether you need to engage at all and, if so, at what level.
The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) has a handy tool which can help you to have that important discussion with senior management, elected officials or board members. Ask yourselves who is impacted by the project, who do you need to hear from, what aspects of the project do participants have real influence over, and what are the best channels to reach those specific audiences?
The IAP2 engagement spectrum is the industry standard for engagement planning. It provides a clear explanation of the different levels of engagement, what happens at each level, what promise is being made to participants, and provides examples of some of the appropriate tools to solicit feedback at each level.
The spectrum goes from INFORM, with the least amount of influence over outcome, to EMPOWER, where participants make the final decision themselves. It’s important to ensure that the language you use to describe your engagement program conforms to this standard.
Be careful that you do not say ‘consult’, when what you actually mean is ‘engage’, for instance. Consistency of language also builds trust. When everyone is clear on what the terminology means, they can realistically align their expectations for participation and influence.
If your organization doesn’t yet have an engagement policy, it may be time to think about developing one. The best way to manage engagement process and expectations is to have clear, predictable, and standardized approaches and language. It will save you time and sweat in the long term, and it will help you build trust within your organization and with external audiences.