Reflections on COVID-19 with IAP2A Director, Lance Brooks

Cartoon people in face masks standing in a line

Lance Brooks, IAP2 Australasia Director

What an incredible life changing six months we have all had. As community engagement practitioners, we deal with change all the time. It’s our business, our bread and butter. Every day we are paid to advise, help, design, facilitate and assist both our clients and communities to manage the complexities of change. Now on top of all that we have to deal with changes in our own lives, whether it be in the workplace, at home (which has now also become our workplace) or in our wider communities. As such, the IAP2 core values and principles for engagement have never been more relevant and needed in the world we find ourselves in today.

We all have our own personal COVID stories filled with a myriad of challenges and emotions. Whether it be personal, work or community related, each of us has a story surrounding our experience of change and difficulty. While mine is no more important than others, I’ve been asked to share with you my own story.

At the beginning of this year I had over 20+ years’ experience working in the community space. I was a newly appointed director to the IAP2 Australasia Board, a director of my own consultancy firm and like everybody else, I was oblivious to what was about to unfold and the roller coaster we were all about to ride.

In October last year I was honoured to be appointed as a director of IAP2 Australasia. Without doubt it has been an insightful experience to be part of the organisation and to learn from its initial response, planning, development of strategy and its implementation during this time. What has been achieved in these last six months is quite incredible. We have gone from being an organisation that had previously delivered 100% of its training face-to-face, to one who, in the matter of a few months, has a number of fully booked online courses. The cooperation and commitment required to achieve this was simply inspiring and full credit must go to IAP2A management, our trainers and the members of the wider engagement industry, all who have made this a reality. The delivery of high-quality online courses has provided a number of additional advantages. In particular, it has resulted in making our courses more accessible and inclusive, providing opportunity for people around Australia’s regional, rural and remote communities to undertake our programs much more easily and affordably.

Whenever you join a new organisation it takes time to learn the new culture, the issues, the challenges and the ways of doing things. However, what was clear from the very beginning was that IAP2A Board’s culture was both harmonious and respectful in its nature which in turn allowed for an open and fertile environment based on listening and respect. This has fostered the opportunity to entertain new ideas, create new strategies and empower our CEO, Marion Short and her team, to deal with the continually evolving issues and challenges. I have no doubt that this sense of openness and support is truly reflective of the IAP2 core values and principles.  The core of IAP2 is not only inspiring and empowering to participate in, but has also provided the right conditions for creating fast, effective and efficient strategies to counter the ever rising challenges of COVID-19.

In my own business, when it first became obvious that there was going to be a major interruption to our industry, I, like many, thought what are we going to do? We have projects halfway through; how can we run a genuine community engagement program where we can’t meet face to face with our communities? I have no doubt many of us initially asked the same questions. In fact, if you had told me that we were going to conduct a community engagement session on infrastructure being instigated in a community totally online, I would have said “NO WAY” nobody would accept that as a genuine and effective engagement session. However, as we all know now, it has been done many times over with many people, stakeholders and communities, highlighting how efficient and effective these meetings have proved to be. We have had higher attendance, saved lots of time and the sessions have progressed to be more on target with a lot less distractions. As a whole, there has been an overwhelming number of positive responses from the community and stakeholders we are working with.

 An unexpected area of benefit has been the evolving improvement in our client meetings. An increase in attendance and regularity has demonstrated the effectiveness of online meetings where we have been able to embed an enhanced community engagement voice in all of our project meetings. As such, this has proved to be highly favourable for our clients and their project teams. Another benefit has been the ease of scheduling meetings and the flexibility that going online offers. We no longer have the time-consuming run around chasing up on all the people required to be at a meeting. We no longer have to constantly figure out availabilities and travel back and forth. Now is the easiest it’s ever been to organise a diverse project team. You pick a time, send out the invite with a secure password and people can attend the meeting no matter where they are in the world.

As far as the communities and stakeholders we are working with, they have quickly adapted to the new world of online engagement. Many prefer its efficiency, time saving nature and ease of instruction. It is less confrontational, more informative and overall more relaxing for participants. Our team has delivered, facilitated and participated in, workshops, webinars, AGM’s, discussion groups, focus groups, polls, design sessions and a number of additional methods that only a few short months ago would never have been a major part of the delivery of our community engagement plans. While nobody is actually suggesting that this will be the permanent way for the future, like all things, a balance between both will likely benefit all.

So in the last six months we have lived in a world that has changed greatly and for some, more dramatically than others. Yet, significantly, we are in an industry that is at the heart of so many answers on how to deal with tragedy and tough times. In the end its ultimately communities that have the power to reach out and help each other and as practitioners and advocates for community, we are in a unique position to help empower those communities.

Keep well
Lance Brooks
IAP2 Australasia Director