A rather unfashionable dialogue method used for stakeholder engagement is public events.
Large or small, public events sound old-fashioned in these days of social media and government exhortations to adopt a ‘digital by default’ policy. Historically, they have also been quite a challenge!
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Engagement and consultation professionals have many stories of poorly organised public meetings or occasions where something has gone wrong. They can become platforms for disenchanted campaigners to express their views and play to the gallery.
To ensure a sound cross-section of stakeholders attends in the first place, you need highly experienced chairpersons or skilled facilitators, plus the appropriate tools - I was delighted to see the improvements made to the Tractivity Events management module when reviewing the latest enhancements for the Tractivity platform.
When we used to run courses on Effective Public Meetings for the Consultation Institute, we found that officers were very wary of such public events.
However, elected members took a very different view. They were the ones who faced demands from their constituents.
Remember that the cry ‘Let’s hold a public meeting’ is an established feature of British democracy, and when communities are anxious about proposed changes that may affect them, it is one of their most instinctive reactions.
The comeback of face-to-face events
Some thought that pandemic lockdowns, making such events impossible, would signal a watershed moment.
We heard people argue that once online meetings became the norm – no one would wish to revert to the old-style face-to-face sessions in draughty village halls. How wrong they were!
There are several reasons, and they are worth reflecting upon:
Public events enable those with opposing views to meet face-to-face
What we’ve learnt is that social media pushes arguments to the extremes. It polarises. It fosters echo chambers and emboldens participants to pursue their causes with an aggression they would never display in person.
There will obviously be a major role for online events, but in the blended approach that will be typical in the coming years, organisations will try to accommodate a range of dialogue methods – and will include attempts to forge consensus by bringing people together.
Done well, they can demonstrate that public bodies … actually listen
Nothing is more dispiriting than the deafening silence that follows stakeholders submitting their views on important changes. They cannot be sure if anyone looks at their well-considered words – or who might be reading them.
It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always championed Consultation Hearings – where those impacted by change can give evidence in person to decision-makers. It prevents large amorphous bodies from hiding behind layers of middle managers. In fact, there is NO substitute for expressing your thoughts – not to a website – but to a real human being.
We are experimenting with new forms and formats
High-profile politicians from Gordon Brown to Rory Stewart have become advocates of Citizens Assemblies; the Green movement is similarly pushing for Climate Assemblies. Still more are becoming keen on open and live citizen juries.
They are all public events but with much emphasis on ‘who is in the room?’ and ever more sophisticated methods of sortation or ways of securing a balanced attendance. Gone are the days of relying on posters on the village green. Today a stakeholder management system can be used to identify and invite participants.
AI will place an additional premium on hearing stakeholders expressing themselves in their own words.How will consultors find out what consultees really think? One answer to that question is that we may see the restoration of person-to-person events. When asked a question, people will not be able to hide behind the words of the AI.
This may surprise quite a few! But, in my view, one of the most likely early uses of AI will be as consultees seek the best possible articulation of their arguments. Soon, it may be difficult to distinguish views expressed by individuals and organisations from those that have effectively been ‘written’ by ChatGPT or its competitors.
Delivering meaningful events
The slow but steady revival of the conference business is another indication, though everyone admits that employees no longer leave the office at the drop of a hat to attend a marginally useful ‘jolly’.
Hopefully, it might encourage higher standards. How many of us have spent a day at a Conference, enjoyed the networking but found the presentations disappointing?
Attracting people to your event is certainly becoming a challenge so the emphasis is on imaginative programming and having effective system tools.
The same applies to stakeholder management. Bringing people together requires fine judgements. When is it appropriate to do so? What is the basic purpose? What’s in it for me? And what’s in it for them? What format should it take? Who will be in charge? Have we got a sufficiently experienced chair or facilitator? Will stakeholders respect that person? What should be the agenda? What outcomes do you anticipate? And What happens afterwards?
There was a time when every local authority, every NHS organisation, and every public body with public interfaces had people on hand with years of experience in organising and running public events.
I’m not sure that is any longer the case. And there is little or no training around. No doubt hundreds of PR agencies will offer the service, but I’m dubious about the depth of expertise that’s around.
Subcontracting public events has one big disadvantage: external people will seldom know your stakeholders as well as YOU do.
And this is the punchline. Public events need a genuine and up-to-the-minute understanding of your stakeholders, their aims, their priorities and their current mindsets, and the system tools that enable you to retain and enrich that knowledge. When you meet them, they’ll appreciate it.
Written by Rhion Jones
Rhion Jones was the Founder Director of the Consultation Institute and is an acknowledged authority on all aspects of public and stakeholder engagement and consultation. He advises Tractivity and will be contributing expert analysis and commentaries on current issues.
Rhion now publishes thought leadership articles regularly as the ConsultationGuru.