Participation is a term that means a lot to me as a community engagement professional. Here’s a fresh way of looking at it.
New ways, new people
Today many water companies and local governments are grappling with sharing their business planning:
• in new ways
• with new people
as Victoria’s Independent Economic Regulator, the Essential Services Commission increasingly directs them towards understanding the community’s views.
A conference presentation posted online by Justine Hyde of the Victorian State Library has got me thinking. She describes participation as shaping, creating and learning to share spaces and resources in new ways, with new people.
Ideas about participation in my field are often shaped by terms like Inform, Consult, Collaborate (IAP2 spectrum).
What does it feel like?
Thinking in categories can lead to blind spots. This is a real issue if it’s something important to participants. “What does participation feel like?” Hyde asks.
Here’s her great list:
• participation feels involving and engaging
• it is the act of sharing, taking part, and it implies being an equal, and being respected
• participation feels like being invited to be part of something bigger than yourself
• it feels like a supportive and nurturing environment
• it feels active, which by deduction means it can’t be passive
• it feels positive, which means there is a benefit or value to it and it is enjoyable
• to participate in something you have to be present – in body and mind!
Hyde asks: if it feels like that, then what does it look like in the organisation in question.
Social, cultural, staff & personal participation
I’ve seen many great organisational approaches to participation in recent work, and I’ve put them into Hyde’s frame.
• Social participation: the water companies with which I’ve recently worked through Insync, Gippsland and East Gippsland Water, have given customers an opportunity to have a voice in the economics of water supply. The discussions focus on value. What do customers value about their water supply? How much do they value do they put on service? It was clear, say at a pop up outside the Coles in Morwell, that people felt included in something bigger than themselves. We certainly hope that this contributed in a small way to building a more civil society.
• Cultural participation: having seen the thorough work East Gippsland Water has done engaging with place and people, I would think that there will be East Gippsland Water people at NAIDOC week celebrations in Gippsland. City of Darebin’s 2016 flag-raising event for NAIDOC really highlighted partnerships across the municipality, with National Disability Insurance, Police, Fire Brigade, local employment providers, and a major hotel group all involved.
• Staff participation: hearing the voice of staff makes all the difference to quality services and engagement. Like the State Library where Hyde works, Sydney Water has used design thinking to ensure that staff insights to the customer journey are well understood.
• Personal participation: Hyde highlights what you as an individual bring to your organisation, your team, your profession and yourself. Being present, attentive, positive, active, supportive, generous and respectful. I see this professionalism and personal interest in my clients all the time. As Hyde suggests, it builds a valuable collective confidence for organisations setting out to create participation experiences that feel good.