In Conversation With: Lisa Attygalle

Each month, PlaceSpeak presents a Q&A with experts in public engagement and civic technology.

This month, we spoke with Lisa Attygalle, Director of Engagement at the Tamarack Institute. The Tamarack Institute was established to make the work of community change easier and more effective by providing research, documenting real stories, and teaching applications for community change. Lisa leads efforts to increase engagement and collaboration across the Tamarack network and community-based projects, and is an advocate for simplicity in infrastructure, frameworks and design.

1. Tell us about your upcoming conference, “Community Engagement: The Next Generation”. Why do you think there is a paradox of people demanding to be more engaged, yet are less interested in being involved and contributing to outcomes?

Tamarack has been supporting organizations with their community engagement efforts for more than 15 years, and we’re seeing a real renewal of energy in people who want to expand and improve their community engagement practices. Part of it is due to new methods being available as technology advances. There’s a renewal of the understanding that the citizen voice is critical for any work being done in community change, and there’s a big push towards not doing “for” the community, but doing “with” the community.

So from March 7-9, 2017, we are convening 150 community change practitioners to discuss the ‘next generation’ of community engagement: What shifts are we seeing? What new technologies and practices are available? What have others done that I can leverage? A bit part of gathering people together is about providing space for them to share and learn from each other; to share the wisdom in the room.

The paradox we see is that organizations are going to big efforts to consult or partner with the community, but are often still seeing low response rates. There are many possible reasons for this but one I’m interested in is the disconnect between people’s intentions and behaviour. If I think of myself as a citizen, there are a lot of things that I want to get involved in, but I don’t have time for everything. One way to combat this is to not try to engage everyone. Find the people who really care about what you’re doing and speak to those people – use your advocates as your champions.

2. What are some major factors which can motivate people to get involved in their communities?

In order to motivate people, we need to tell them why their voice is important. If they don’t get involved, what are the implications or consequences? Language is really important. So often I see invitations to engage that use unfriendly language such as, “Zone 3 Change Addendum”. Instead, be human. Use language like, “The future of the recreation centre: What amenities do you want?” Make it accessible for people and tell them why they should care.

Another big one is accountability. The community needs to know that their time and effort is worth it. Often people will participate, but not know how their feedback is being used. Who’s going to review the feedback? Who is going to decide? Organizations conducting any community engagement really need to over explain the process to be accountable to participants.

3. What are some of the barriers that prevent decision-makers from engaging most effectively with citizens?

The common barriers are timeline and budget. There needs to be an upfront process to determine what kind of community engagement is most appropriate for the kind of change that is happening. If you’re looking to problem-solve with the community, the timeline needs to be different from if you’re just looking for a response to two options. Often, the timeline doesn’t reflect the way the community wants to get engaged.

More importantly though, I think there are emotional barriers of fear and control. Someone whose job it is to engage the community is considered to be the content expert, and they may see themselves as being paid to solve a problem as opposed to being a guide or listening post for the community. Often, we find that people don’t want to go to the community before they have answers or possible solutions. But often, that’s want the community wants! The community members are the context experts, they’re the ones with the lived experience (e.g. people who live in the neighbourhood), and they have powerful ideas for how change should occur. Understanding how the content experts and the context experts can work together is really important for breaking down that barrier of fear.

Control is another barrier: Sometimes, organizations also say, “I’m not ready to let the community decide completely, what if they want something that we can’t deliver?” I think this is a valid fear, but the thing to keep in mind is that you can set the parameters of the project. You get to clarify the scope, the budget, and any other key restraints or considerations. I think reinforcing the parameters of the work makes the unknowns of how the community will respond less scary.

4. This year, the Edelman Trust Barometer highlighted a “global implosion of trust”. People are cynical and distrustful of decision-makers. What tangible steps need to be taken in the citizen engagement process to reverse this trend?

The first two words that come to mind are transparency and accountability. We now have access to information and that is a shift from 10 years ago. Open data and access to information is an expectation and organizations should no longer hold information close to their chests. We need to be transparent about the process, the scope of work, the data, etc. Don’t just provide the information that supports what you’re doing. If you don’t say it, someone else will. Summarize it all. Don’t shy away from it.

To be accountable as an engagement practitioner, every time you engage you need to tell people how their feedback is going to be used. It’s really important for people to be able to see the output of their time and effort. This needs to be cyclical: explain your plans and process, engage your community, and then show them the output afterwards. You can’t just do this once. Do that over and over again in order to demonstrate accountability.

5. How do we reach people who distrust the process so much that they don’t even want to engage?

Trust is formed over time and being accountable is the only way to earn trust. In the short term though, pay attention to who is engaged in the process. Is there someone involved who is trusted by the community? Consider them an ally and see if they can help to invite others to participate. If they can invite and speak on your behalf, it will help to build trust. A referral from a trusted source is considered the most valuable form of marketing.

6. What is the most important lesson that you have learnt from your extensive experience in community engagement?

I came to [the community engagement] world from the private sector where I developed online engagement strategies for clients at a marketing agency. The work in community change (as a field) is so serious, and rightly so: we’re talking about poverty, health, access, and so on. But I think in order to communicate well and to engage well, we need to make it fun. We need to make it an experience where we surprise and delight people. Get people excited. I think about humanizing language and creative ways to engage people. When I’m engaging a community I’m asking for their time and effort, so how can I make it something they’ll want to tell everybody else about? Always think of it from the viewpoint of the people you’re engaging: What’s in it for them?

About Community Engagement: The Next Generation

Engagement expectations have changed and yet we’re often using the same community engagement techniques we have used for years. We need a new generation of tools and practices to inform, consult, involve and partner with people in building better communities. Join 150 people working towards positive community change to explore techniques for community engagement engagement, and understand how systems change and what role engagement plays in building and sustaining movements for change.

Learn more and register here.