How to spread your organisation's "good engagement examples" the strategic way

Q. Every organisation has its "good examples" of how it engaged with stakeholders or the community. But how do you shift an organisation so those are the everyday norm?

A. You can't without an agreed engagement strategy and 100% buy-in from senior management and governance (whether that’s your board, elected councilors or Ministers).

Let’s start with a good example

Hauraki Terrace in Thames is a neighbourhood with a reputation.

Public property seems fair game to various expressions of local artwork - from almost artistic to very angry. In the midst of the area was a dilapidated playground.

Usually a playground is upgraded by a council as part of its normal maintenance and replacement regime. In other words, it is recorded in the books as an ‘asset’ and is repaired and replaced as required. There’s no real engagement in this process.

So how did this council become so dilapidated? Perhaps the council assumed the residents didn’t want the playground anymore. A reasonable assumption given its treatment, right?

But the local Thames Community Board and Thames South Primary School got together to change this. A Community Board is a publicly elected group of people with responsibility for 14 services including Parks & Reserves. They are expected to partner with the community in everything they do: decision making, funding, strategic planning and service delivery.

The children of Thames South Primary School came and spoke to the Community Board at a formal meeting about the playground. There was no budget to renew the playground that year. But their passion for designing and upgrading it melted the hearts of the elected members. To cut a long story short, they agreed to an upgrade and council parks staff, a passionate teacher and the children designed and built it.

Children of Hauraki Terrace area perform a haka at the opening of their new park

Children of Hauraki Terrace area perform a haka at the opening of their new park

On the day of the playgound’s opening, the children performed a spontaneous haka as a mark of respect. They were honouring the inclusive process and the mana (pride) it restored to them as people in the Hauraki Terrace area.

Moving from the ‘Good Examples’

Q. Is this good example enough for the citizens to trust that things have changed permanently at their council?

A. No, not on its own.

Building Hauraki Playground is not going to build community trust in a lasting way.

Just as I’m sure you can point to the odd good example of engagement in your organisation. But is it the norm?

Here’s where the desire for genuine engagement relies on buy-in from the organisation’s leadership and governance.

But here, in this place, on the Coromandel - the people can expect that their council will act in the same way. Why? Because the organisation has changed its model of governance and management to embed community empowerment and engagement into the core of its operations.

In a complete upheaval, I took the council through a process and this is what emerged:

  • localism at the centre of decision-making, funding decisions and service-delivery,

  • an expectation of engagement and partnership in all operations – both local and district-wide,

  • a new management structure committed to the model,

  • a growing kete (basket) of knowledge and shared good practice across the organisation to learn from

  • rewards for delivering in this way and building the culture of council,

  • a Performance Management framework to add the steel backbone when required for those not with the programme.

But a dose of realism, folks.

We know your organisation is on a journey just like your communities and stakeholders.

Changing the rules is not enough. Rules can be reversed in one election or one change of Chief Executive. The entire organisation and community needs to be part of the transformation. You need to change the underlying expectations so everybody is genuinely committed to the value of engagement as part of business as usual.