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How to engage citizens? Well, a good start is to treat them like people

By Mark Randell - posted Monday, 4 August 2003

Repeat after me-"This is not rocket science". "This is not…" etc. Engagement with another person - be it a student, a colleague, a citizen, a lover - requires one primary thing: A respectful relationship.

In order to engage with someone, to get their attention, to transmit useful and digested information, you need to look them in the eyes. That is, you need to see them as individual human beings, as people just like you, as "real folk". This is not to say that you can't form relationships with people you have never seen - the rising number of "Internet marriages" shows us that - but that you must speak to those people with a real voice, with a human voice, with your heart, not your corporate or governmental public relations voice. You need to be real.

A wonderful, if somewhat over-long statement of the same point can be found in that surprise best-seller, The Cluetrain Manifesto. In that work, the authors were concerned to assist with the marketing of product, services, corporations, and they pointed out that "Markets are conversations".


The point is (almost) exactly the same for citizen engagement: "Citizens want conversations". Citizens want dialogue, they want to talk to real people, people just like them who understand what the real issues are, people who understand why kids want natural places to play, people who have to push the stroller across broken footpaths and don't like it, people who realise the environment needs to be protected because they go there on their annual holidays with their kids, people who don't necessarily always go to fancy resorts where armed guards keep the locals at bay so the rich can enjoy the beach. People want to engage with other real people. People don't want to engage with a "consultation programme" or smooth-talking PR consultants well-versed in the company line(s).

You see, a basic first principle is this - people engage when the topic is relevant to their lives and when they perceive a benefit from doing so. And relevance and potential benefit are best ascertained by the people themselves…

The trouble for governments of all shapes, sizes and persuasions, is that they do not expend any energy in maintaining what I like to call "always-on" channels of real citizen participation where their "officers" spend time with "the people", getting to know them, looking them in the eye, learning about their lives. "But how can a government do this?" I hear you cry.

Well-firstly, don't throw money at it. That is, don't take the usual government/corporate approach of putting together a "programme" employing vast numbers of officers, consultants, facilitators, marketing gurus, and then start appointing people drawn by newspaper or television advertising to "participation panels" or some such.

You need to understand what (again) I would call "The Complex Community" (a title coming soon to all good bookstores!); you need to understand the principles of self-organising systems.

Now, I hear you cry, how did we get here? He's tricked us - taking us into deep theoretical territory just when we thought we were getting a light read. Perhaps - but stay with me, this is the interesting and free advice part…


You see, a group of citizens-commonly called a "community" - is a self-organising system. Left to itself, it shows "emergent" properties: It organises itself into groups; it develops its own local governance; it forms interest groups, large and small; it looks after its children, its aged; and so on. All of this is, in fact, what Australian citizens have done for themselves to date. After all, we only have a three-tiered system of government because we, the people, made it so.

The first rule for governments who genuinely want to engage citizens is to encourage and facilitate citizens to define their own decision-making processes.

In other words, don't sit in air-conditioned offices and expect people to engage on issues of your choosing, via a process of your choosing. First, find out (by "walking about", by "being with" the people, not by impersonal survey) what engages your citizens, and then ask how they would like the engagement "process" to be organised. If you're going to attempt engaging people, engage them from day one, not day ten - in consultant-speak, engage them in process design. And don't forget that that design is for a self-organising process. If you do it right, you won't have to do it-the community will do it for you. (This is working smarter, not harder, folks).

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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