Quite often structured engagement activities are seen as nice-to-have additions to an organisation’s pre-existing repertoire. However in the health and social services sector, specifically in the non-profit arena, the benefits that genuine stakeholder engagement can have on mitigating the negative effects of market competition, public cynicism and perceived transparency are profound.

Concepts such as ‘community consultation’, ‘community engagement’, ‘community partnerships’, ‘bottom-up’ initiatives, ‘triple bottom line’ planning, ‘stakeholder input’ and ‘community reference groups’ are now commonplace. Although, it has not always been this way; historically policy has largely favoured top-down approaches to decision-making, over the last two decades there has been a shift to more inclusive practises.

When used appropriately, the community can be a very powerful vehicle for informing public policy, and enhancing service design and implementation. But we now find ourselves at the other extreme whereby using 'community consultation' so frequently, we run the risk of tokenistic participation. If you find 'community consultation' about as exciting as waiting for the train with slow wi-fi, IT IS TIME FOR A CHANGE! 

We would like to use this article as an opportunity for you to be reflexive in your work, whether that be in a professional capacity or otherwise. It is critical to take a step back from the daily grind and challenge why you do things in a certain way.

Do you always default to surveys for obtaining feedback after a service is introduced in the community? Is the organisation committing a significant amount of resources to collaborate at every step with minimal yield?

These are the types of questions you can ask to start to unpack your approach. If you're not sure where to start, the following framework is a great way to prompt your thinking around community engagement in various contexts. 

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The International Association for Public Participation (IAP) 2 Public Participation Spectrum is a widely used framework designed to assist in the decision-making process around the public’s role in the genesis and execution of a program. The level of engagement is influenced by the nature of the program, goals, time frames and resourcing. From a one-way information flow (inform) to handing over the decision-making power entirely (empower), the frameworks offers various mechanisms by which the community can participate. You may also use a combination of approaches or innovative variations of this framework (or other reputable frameworks alike) to fit your objectives.

At Beacon Strategies we aim to adapt this model to our work and ensure we engage the community in the most appropriate way that aligns with partnering organisations. In our current project with the Gold Coast PHN on Palliative Care and Residential Aged Care Facility Commissioning, the team have used various elements from a combination of approaches. Beacon will 'consult' with community through PHN advisory groups; 'collaborate' with project partners including Palliative Care Queensland (PCQ) and the Council on the Ageing Queensland (COTA) through a joint plan of action and mutually decision-making; and 'empower' through co-design workshops to give stakeholders the opportunity to contribute to and decide on preferred models of care for the Gold Coast region. Stay posted on our LinkedIn for the final outcomes of this project, exciting things to come!

Time for some mythbusting!

Myth #1: 'Collaborate' and 'empower' are always the best methods of public participation, whilst methods at the lower end of the spectrum including 'inform' or 'consult' are less valuable. 

FALSE: Although the IAP2 framework suggests that public impact increases with greater community involvement, 'empower' is not always the most appropriate option, particularly when decision-making is required around complex policy or large infrastructure.

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To illustrate this point, we will use three examples of various approaches used in relation to medically supervised injecting trial centres as a State Government initiative. It is ultimately a highly complex and sensitive subject matter, and the way in which the community participates must be carefully considered. 

1. The first example is a public forum conducted by the State Government on whether supervised injecting facilities should be introduced to deal with the growing drug use problem. The public will be engaged at the 'collaborate' level to enable individuals with lived experience of drug use, community support workers, medical professionals, carers, and the broader community to work in partnership with the government to address the public health issue.

2. The second example is the development of a State Drug Action Plan. This involves revising existing policy and generating new policy in relation to drug use and service provision at the state level. The public will be engaged at the 'consult' level to ensure the community has a platform through which to provide feedback, however much of the decision-making will remain with government. 

3. The third example is a community-based education and peer worker program using an 'empower’ approach. The community would drive decision-making around the program including and employ local people with lived experience of drug misuse/addiction to deliver it. The community is responsible for overseeing successful implementation and evaluation of the program, with assistance from the lead organisation when required.

Still sitting on the fence? Well let's look at the perils and pitfalls of the 'empowered' approach

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It is important to note that the effectiveness of public consultation is only as good as the opportunities we afford for genuine engagement. A highly successful example in Australia is the 'Deadly Choices' program, an Indigenous-led initiative working with the community to educate individuals about healthy lifestyle and chronic disease, in order to close the gap in health outcomes between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. 

With that said, it is important to find a balance between expert opinion and community input. Determine at what point/s you would like to engage the public, then select the method along the Public Participation Spectrum that will provide the most value for both the community and your organisation in terms of developing your service model. 

If you only thing you take away from this blog, make sure it involves establishing meaningful connections with your key stakeholders. As always, if you need support or would like access to any of our stakeholder engagement resources simply get in touch through the button below.

About Beacon Strategies - We are a mission-based health and social services consultancy committed to supporting organisations to effectively plan, design, implement and evaluate their projects and services. For more information about services that we can offer your not-for-profit organisation, click the link below or contact Lilian Tamas (Beacon Strategies Associate Consultant) via lilian@beaconstrategies.net.

Explore our portfolio of not-for-profit work by clicking the link above.