On engagement methods

There is no single new model of the community-institution relationship. Instead, there are a variety of forms of public engagement that can be used depending on the unique combination of context, challenges, issues and assets in question. This broad ‘family’ of service design, partnership and public engagement approaches, can be understood as a spectrum – calling on a range of social actors to take different degrees of responsibility for achieving social outcomes. In so doing, this builds on Arnstein’s well-known ‘ladder of participation’ which has been the seminal work in this area since the late 1960s. 

I’ve mapped these methods to develop my ‘Breadth and Depth’ model of participation as follows. Areas of high depth are those that really engage people deeply on an issue or challenge, such as a citizen’s jury; low depth methods are lighter touch, such as a citizens’ panel.  High breadth methods will reach large proportions of a population, whereas low breadth will engage a relatively smaller proportion of people. Here’s the required approach for each of the resulting quadrants:

  • High breadth and high depth requires collaboration 
  • Low breadth and low depth requires involvement
  • High breadth and low depth requires information / consultation
  • Low breadth and high depth requires empowerment

This helps prioritise different methods of engagement dependent on the issue and community at hand. Nor are they mutually exclusive: great empowerment in a community, for example, can be built on a foundation of information provision, consultation, involvement and collaboration. 

I suggest that a first step is to identify the existing activity in any given community and plot it against the breadth/depth of engagement methods. This will provide an insight into which methods already exist and how to work alongside them.  

Engagement over time will be most effective if it draws upon a ‘mixed economy’ of methods that bring a coherence to the work. For example, the breadth and depth of methods will build upon each other. Lighter-touch, more visible methods will help the organisation or funder become known in the community, and such awareness will make more involved methods – such as collaboration – more likely to be successful. 

Finally, there are some critical factors that underpin good engagement and participation. I’ll explore these in a subsequent blog.   

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