Engagement Considerations – Starting out

The following provides some background to some of the broad considerations staff will need to take into account when engaging and consulting.

What decision is being considered?

Do you need to engage? Before anything else, you need to ask what is to be achieved by engaging with people. This will include identifying the main drivers for the activity; you need to consider what you are consulting on in relation to the potential political, organisational, and public influence on the process. Only consult and engage people in the areas they can influence, and explain clearly any boundaries and limitations that exist. This will prevent expectations being raised falsely. You will also need to consider the proportionality; the information required will be dependent on the necessity, scale, and the sensitivity of the service changes in question. Where changes are small then engagement may not be required.

What level of influence do participants and the Council have on the decisions?

Once overall objectives are set, you need to consider the appropriate level and type of engagement required. If you already have a clear steer on a decision, with little scope for change, then resources need to go into informing stakeholders, otherwise all that may be achieved is a costly and potentially damaging ‘tick box’ exercise. However, if no consultation and engagement is carried out, this will need to be justifiable and defensible, and if robust arguments against a decision arise, then the level of engagement reconsidered. Where people may influence outcomes, then opportunity should be given to them to make suggestions and innovative ideas encouraged. It must also be accepted that where proposals are controversial and people engage to influence decisions that opinions are considered as part of the final decision process, and changes made if appropriate. In some instances the final outcome may involve the coproduction of services, where individuals, communities, and authorities share the running of a service.

What level of engagement is needed?

This will depend largely on the level of service decision and potential resource implication of outcomes. Although higher levels of engagement will cost more, this needs to be weighed against the potential cost benefit of making the right decision, at the right time, with the right people. If working directly with communities, you may wish to ask them how they would prefer to be engaged, and work with them in organising events or activities. If the level and role of the local community has been underestimated, then consideration should be given to expanding that role.

Who needs to be engaged, consulted, and informed?

Defining your target audience may be fairly self-explanatory with some services, though for any significant work an Impact Assessment will need to be carried out. This will inform you of the economic, environmental, and equality considerations. Particular consideration should be given to any additional work that may be required to engage any people with particular equality perspectives, particularly under the Equalities Act 2010, or mental health issues under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Engagement should seek a representative cross-section of views appropriate to the issue being explored. It is essential that you ensure the outcomes will reflect the population affected. This may include previous, current, and potential service users. When approaching communities, you will need to bear in mind that not all individuals may immediately identify themselves and engage within a given community, and consideration needs to be given as to how to encompass those who will be affected by a decision, but who may not engage readily.

When do you need to engage?

Before the decision is made, and within a timescale that allows people to fairly consider and influence decisions. For significant engagement processes, this is usually taken to be twelve weeks.

Are other similar engagements taking place, or have taken place recently?

It is useful to review what engagement has taken place in the area you will be working in; this can save money, time, and prevent duplication. In considering other work, you may find existing useful engagement data, or networks, with skills, knowledge, and experience you can draw or build on. Working with partners can also save money.

Devon County Council’s Insight & Impact team works closely with partners and other agencies, identifying joint engagement opportunities, discussing and sharing engagement methods and activity. We currently use Consultation Finder, an online system to log and promote engagement and to provide an overview of activity.

How are outcomes going to be monitored and communicated?

Once engagement has taken place and decisions made people need to be informed. One of the quickest ways of disenfranchising people is to take their time to ask them their opinion, then not tell them what you have done as a result. Engagement should embody the ‘You said, we did’ approach, linking views gathered to outcome.

Any outcome should be monitored for effectiveness to ensure that it was the right decision.

What type of engagement or consultation?

Once you understand your project requirements, you will need to set out a plan to ensure you engage at the appropriate and achievable level. For larger projects, a comprehensive plan will be required, whilst smaller projects may just need an outline.

You will need to consider the following:

  • What methods of engagement are most appropriate and achievable?
  • When do you need to produce results?
  • Who is going to oversee the project?
  • Who is going to carry out the engagement?
  • How are you going to promote and encourage engagement in the project?
  • How are you collecting and analysing the data?
  • Who will monitor the outcomes?
  • How and when will feedback be provided to the Council and participants?

What methods of engagement are most appropriate and achievable?

After the aims, objectives, and scope of the engagement exercise have been agreed you will need to decide the most appropriate methods. There are a wide range of engagement methods available that are usually suited to different situations. As with many areas of work, the methods chosen will have advantages, and disadvantages. In selecting a method, or methods, you are trying to achieve the best possible outcome, whilst acknowledging how the method may influence decisions. The following questions will assist in this process:

  • What resources are available?
  • What information do you need to make a decision, and add value?
  • Who needs to be involved, how will you engage them (how would they like to be engaged)?
  • Are relevant skills available, and is any learning required?

What resources are available?

Engagement will cost time and money. The level of engagement will therefore be dependent on the level of decision being made, and the potential costs involved in resulting service changes. Cost should not be used as a justification for not considering proper engagement. You need to assess financial constraints and be realistic when identifying the most appropriate mechanisms of engagement to achieve the best outcomes. Consideration will need to be made as to whether harder-to-engage people or those with additional needs are affected by a service, and the best way to involve them as additional time and resource may be required to gather their views.

What information do you need to make a decision, and add value?

When choosing a method you will need to consider what information you need to achieve. Engagement and research may require a high level of skill and expertise to carry out and analyse in the most effective and meaningful way. Cutting costs by carrying out ad hoc research that does not achieve the desired results is not cost effective. Attention should be paid to the resources involved in planning, designing, executing, and analysing results.

Engagement work is often divided into two specific types that have various advantages and disadvantages, and techniques involved may have varying acceptance with different audiences.

Quantitative research is usually used to provide large amounts of data around structured questions. This is particularly useful for providing snapshots of public opinion or attitudes around a particular service area or proposal. Randomised sampling and statistical techniques can be used to demonstrate how results may apply to a given population and can usually be represented in straightforward graphs. Surveys are a popular method of quantitative data collection.

Various problems may be encountered with this type of work. Although results may be ‘statistical’, ask a question incorrectly and you will get misleading responses; ‘garbage in, garbage out’. There can be problems of meaning, particularly when you work in an area and know what you mean, but this may not be immediately apparent to the respondent who may interpret the question in another way. How people respond around behaviour and what they want may be at variance to how they would actually respond, or what they would actually want. Some questions may appear to be trying to gain a certain response, or limit the response too much, and do not allow for exploration of meaning.

Qualitative research can allow issues to be explored in more depth, allowing for themes and meaning to be explored. Participants are able to talk more freely around issues, and a dialogue built up around the issues in hand. Focus groups and one-to-one interviews are techniques employed in this area.

This type of engagement tends not to allow for large numbers of participants, and may not be representative. However, it can be used to elicit responses from specific groups to inform issues from differing perspectives, and greater exploration of issues. This type of work can also produce large quantities of content rich material that will need analysing and reporting.

Who needs to be involved, how will you engage them ?

In order to identify your target audience you will need to consider whether this is an easily defined group. Clients of a particular service may be easily identified, but consideration will need to be given to all who will, or may, be affected. An Impact Assessment will assist with this process. Once you have identified your audience you need to select engagement appropriate to enable all those affected to participate; this may require more than one method. You must make sure that the methods you employ do not discriminate, particularly in relation to the Equalities Act 2010. For example, although a survey may be relatively cheap and easy to deploy, it would not be appropriate for certain groups, and tends to be skewed in response (though weighting may be applied if appropriate sampling used). Some audiences may have a preference in how we engage with them.

Are relevant skills available, and is any learning required?

Different types of engagement require different levels of skill, expertise, and experience. Designing and implementing engagement can require expertise in communication and research methodology as well as political, organisational, or local knowledge. With increased involvement, participants may require support in gaining the information required to provide informed opinions when taking part. The DCC Insight & Impact Team will help identify and promote appropriate mechanisms for engagement carried out in-house. This does not mean we will impose any course of action, unless in not doing so would be damaging, unlawful, or costly.

When do you need to produce results?

The engagement process needs to take into account when the results are needed. Time and resources need to be allocated to facilitate appropriate engagement and consultation. The right people need to be asked in the right way at the right time, allowing them to participate at the level needed. Tight timescales do not make for the best use of resources, nor allow time to respond to issues that may be raised (which will be raised – better to inform decisions, than respond after). For significant engagement exercises, a period of twelve weeks is currently recommended, or required in certain circumstances, whilst smaller exercises may cover shorter periods. Collating and analysing results can take considerable time and this should be considered when planning an engagement.

Who is going to oversee the project?

Each project should have a lead member who will oversee the timely execution of the project, and ensure results are presented in an appropriate way to stakeholders.

Who is going to carry out the engagement?

Devon County Council has a consultation and engagement commissioning framework available for many projects. If DCC staff are using an external agency then the commissioning framework must be used to select an approved company. If the work is being carried out in house then the people involved must have the right skills and expertise to carry out the work. The Insight & Impact team can assist in the design, execution, and analysis of engagement and consultation exercises within DCC. Any engagement work being carried in house is notified to the Group and Service Area Engagement Leads.

Consideration should be given to objectivity; it may be desirable to use either an in house service, or external service, separate from your service to provide some form of objectivity. If there are sensitive issues relating to the Council some people may not wish to air those views directly to Council staff. However, some may not wish to discuss issues through a third party organisation. The use of external agencies will need to balance need with cost, it will not always be necessary to use external organisations.

How are you going to promote and encourage engagement in the project?

If an engagement is well designed, it should appeal to the target audience, particularly if they can see how their involvement will influence decisions affecting them. Adequate promotion of engagement should be implemented through the Insight & Impact and Corporate Communications teams, as well as  existing channels.

If people are going to make an informed opinion then you need to give them sufficient time and information to gain a background knowledge of the service in question. If issues are complex you made need an officer, or officers, with the required knowledge to provide or be present to provide background information. Care should be taken if officers are providing information not to direct opinions, or appear to ignore those they do not want to hear. Any background information should be clear and concise in Plain English or other format needed by the audience (so long as there is a genuine need and this is proportionate).

In some instances it may be required to provide reimbursement for people attending engagement events. The finance guidelines set out at the time of the engagement should be followed if reimbursements are being made.

How are you collecting and analysing the data?

Producing good quality data is essential to inform service development and decisions. Analysis must be fit for purpose, representing the engagement activity accurately. The exact requirements of the data needs to be specified whether you use the engagement framework or you carry these tasks out in house. Whilst carrying out the analysis in house you need to ensure that the right experience and skills are available within the timescales required.

Where possible, you should know how you are going to code, input, and analyse your data before starting the project. There is no point collecting data then finding you cannot extract the information you require due to inappropriate coding or lack of appropriate resource. Analysis can be complex, even with appropriate software to assist quantitative or qualitative analysis.

Who will monitor the outcomes?

Throughout the project the resources, activities, and outcomes should be monitored for cost effectiveness and delivery of specific objectives. You may wish to ask:

  • Were the overall aims and outcomes achieved?
  • Were sufficient views gained to represent the target audience?
  • Did the project meet the objectives of the Council?
  • Were participants engaged at the appropriate level?
  • What did and did not work?
  • What could be done better next time?

How and when will feedback be provided to the Council and participants?

Providing feedback to the Council and participants is one of the most important parts of any engagement process. Apart from showing how people’s participation contributed to the process, by not revealing information may produce the assumption that we have something to hide; this may result in unnecessary Freedom of Information requests, ill feeling, or other action that could have been avoided, and that ends up costing more. Feedback in itself is a method of engagement, and should be scheduled in and publicised.