Lessons on engagement

We’ve seen a massive rise in the emphasis of engagement in tenders in the last 18 months. It’s become an almost essential requirement for teams to commit to “do more” than inform communities or consult about projects, and to really engage communities as part of the design process. In fact, there is increasingly a move even further along the scale of Community Engagement, with reference to co-production and co-creation being increasingly common.

“…propose a methodology for comprehensive public, and other key resident and business stakeholder engagement. Consultants should recognise the significance of this part of the commission and ensure appropriate resource is dedicated, in designing their proposals.”

“…we are keen to encourage and empower people to be part of the design and decision-making process for local services. Through the engagement within this project, there is an opportunity to bring residents on the journey with us and inspire coproduction.”

“…the proposals for physical change will be co-produced through a process that is democratic, diverse, bold and truly representative.”

This shift of ambition away from simply presenting plans, visualisations, and pre-determined solutions is something we firmly believe is critical to creating great places. We consistently push in our projects to engage before ideas are developed, rather than waiting until there is something to show. This is essential if we’re to genuinely involve local people, and not work on a top-down approach where it’s assumed “professionals know best.”

Positively, this directly having an impact on our work, with Design Teams frequently contacting us to invite us to join them on tenders. There is significant value of us operating within design teams, acting as a semi-independent facilitator, advocating for the community voice, and ensuring what we hear on the ground is considered and responded to in the design process. We’re better positioned to be able to support and challenge effectively. Some of the teams we’ve been working with recently have truly embraced our input, with us sitting at the design table as a member of the team and directly influencing decisions throughout the design process.

In short, we very much welcome this shift.

However, this is all quite new for those commissioning projects and writing tenders or briefs, and unfortunately, we’ve seen some pretty poor practice in recent months. Commissioners have the right intention, and their aims are admirable. But a lack of experience means there are some mistakes that we keep seeing again and again.

I wanted to share four key problems we are repeatedly coming across.

  1. Clients and design teams need to better understand what they are asking for.

Co-design is not easy. With co-design, the design team and decision makers need to effectively give away their power. As one brief effectively put it, “It positions the end user at the centre of the design and creative process in a way that encompasses full and active participation in all aspects and phases of the project.” This means the design team are just one participant in the process. They need to consistently respond to the different and often conflicting voices they are hearing, evolving, changing and redoing their design.

If the aspiration is to involve a very broad audience, and to approach this with a fully embedded co-design approach, there will be so many ideas and voices, all equal, rarely in full agreement, all constantly changing, coming and going, in the process.

Speaking to my good friend Ronnie Hughes this week, he recounted a project that fully embraced co-design principals, where they ended up with a design for a “Five humped camel. And a five humped camel never works.” Luckily, Ronnie and others gently called an end to the process, and a more restrained process of engagement and decision making came into force — still with real community involvement but enabling everyone around the table to draw on and maximise their skills effectively.

This isn’t to reject the idea of co-design. But clients really need to think if this is what they want, and design teams need to be clear they can really work in that way. Sometimes there would be greater value in requesting high quality, meaningful engagement, or a blend of the two. When writing the brief, there needs to be a real refection on what is needed and why, what the outcome will be and what are the project parameters. Which takes me to the next point.

2. Programmes need to be realistic.

Whether we’re looking at meaningful engagement, or co-design, involving people, and particularly diverse, representational voices, isn’t quick. Simply agreeing an engagement strategy can take weeks. We believe engagement should start pre-design, and should be circular, enabling regular feedback loops where we listen, act, and listen again.

However, programmes rarely build this in. Design teams are often under pressure to get designing as soon as commissioned (sometimes before where it’s a competition, but that’s another matter…) This means engagement often commences when design teams are working away in the background to meet deadlines. This conflicts with the principals of involvement that we should be working towards and is a long way from heady aspirations of co-creation.

3. Delivering engagement isn’t cheap.

Not only does it take time, but it also isn’t cheap. It requires planning, research, tailoring, design and development, delivery, and analysis. A series of events may seem simple enough, but the input into them is substantial. And developing engagement programmes takes experience and skills which do need to be paid for. We are constantly squeezed on tenders, by teams, clients and the community. Everyone always wants — reasonably — more diverse methodologies, and more opportunities to get involved.

There is no reason we should have lower fees that equally qualified design professionals. This isn’t coming from a place of greed, but of valuing what we do, and it has taken us a long time to get to that place where we feel confident in asking for a fair deal. We’ll always go over and above (my ability not to can be a frustration for the team!), but if we’re squeezed too much at the outset, we have nowhere to go and no ability to have the flex we need to deliver a responsive engagement programme.

Additionally, if we are just covering our costs, we can’t deliver our own wider work, reinvesting our surplus into communities to deliver locally responsive, socially driven projects and education programmes. And if we do that, we run the risk of becoming another consultant rather than a social business.

4. There needs to be more check points.

Like the rapidly increased and expanded requirements to deliver on social value targets (again, one for another day), the requirements to involve stakeholders and communities in the design process does not see enough checks. Tenders make grand statements that match the equally grand statements made in the tender. But too often, there are no or too few checks that these commitments have been delivered.

I would like to see specific requirements for design teams to demonstrate what changes have been made as a direct result of engagement, and what was not possible to implement. Effectively, a publicly accessible report that shows what difference people generously giving up their time to share their views and ideas made. Without this, the sense people have that “there’s no point engaging as you won’t listen anyway” won’t change.

We’ll be exploring the above and other thoughts from our experience as part of a series of events later in the year (more details to come!)

In the meantime, to all those trying to get it right, thank you. Just by including the requirements to engage or deliver co-design we’re making great strides. But if you can keep working on reflection, programme, budget and checks, we’d keep moving in the right direction together.

Jo Harrop
PLACED Director & Founder

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