Australian Government,  stakeholder engagement

Let’s talk about fake engagement

In the public service, there is a phenomenon I call fake engagement. I’ve seen it done internally with staff and externally with stakeholders. I’ve seen it faked well and be such a sham that it fooled no one.

What is fake engagement?

We have all done it. The Minister, Secretary or another Executive ask you to “go do some stakeholder engagement before we announce xxxx”. Often it is a meeting with stakeholders on a decision that has already been made or a program that has already been designed. You are there to tell them about what you have decided and see what their reaction is. Staff get “consulted” about a change that has already been scoped out, costed, and project plan developed.

Fake engagement is when we ask for feedback on something where the participants have no opportunity to provide new ideas or solutions and very little chance of changing the course.

I have been known to go into a meeting asking, “do you really want to know what stakeholders think or is this just fake engagement?” Some people get offended, but it is the truth of working in government. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it.

I don’t advocate for it. I know what good genuine engagement looks like. I try to talk people out of it but too often in government, what is happening is a tick the box exercise rather than actually seeking the views of our staff, clients or industry.

What is real engagement?

I hear some of you say but seeking feedback on an existing idea is still engagement. You need a plan before you can ask people what they think.

What if we thought about engagement differently? What if instead of asking what people think about your plan, we asked them how to solve the problem? Imagine if we had the time to gather all of the creative ideas and then find the right answer.

Even if it’s not at the beginning of the process, real genuine engagement requires the people being consulted to have a chance to influence the outcome. You understand where you need more insights, what they can influence and what is out of their control. 

The benefits are that you get diversity of thought. If you get the right people in the room, you may be able to genuinely create the solution to a problem which is fit for purpose for the people that are going to use it. Stop it! 

Authentic, genuine stakeholder engagement provides many other tangible and intangible benefits, including increased satisfaction, collective decision making resulting in greater buy-in, improved relationships and typically better outcomes.

The negative is it takes longer. You need to allow time for engagement. It’s not one meeting knocked over in an afternoon. It’s often multiple ways of engaging with a wide variety of people over many months. It is not something you can pull together tomorrow and roll out the day before the Minister’s announcement. You need a clear plan of who, how and when you will engage.

Know when to walk away

Here is the hard truth. If you know there is nothing that your stakeholders can influence, like a new structure as part of a machinery of government change, a program that has already been announced or a process that is already in train, don’t do stakeholder engagement.

There is a difference between telling stakeholders about a new idea and engaging them in the design. Don’t disingenuously organise a ‘focus group’ with stakeholders if you are just going to do a presentation and let them ask you a few questions. It’s not engagement. It’s communications. If there is nothing that you genuinely need them to work with you on, it raises expectations, and at worst, is wasting their time.

It’s ok, sometimes there simply won’t be time you just need to make a decision and get it out the door. Or the powers that be have chosen the direction. You don’t need to do engagement every time, pick the right time and it will be more impactful.

Want to talk more about how to engage internal or external stakeholders? I’d love to! Give me a call.

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