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Tales from the Trenches with Akin Falaki

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I have about 20 years’ experience that cuts across the public service, community and international development in Nigeria and Australia. My academic background and training are in the sciences and community development. My research work has featured in prestigious Universities in the United States, Europe and Australia. I have managed major projects with significant local, national and international impacts, including policy, campaign, advocacy and of course engagement. I also have broad experiences serving on boards and committees, and leading people and organisations to achieve wonderful outcomes.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.

I currently work with the Glenorchy City Council in the greater Hobart region. Our goal in Council is to deliver on the City of Glenorchy Community Plan 2015-40 which was developed through extensive consultation with our community and stakeholders. Our beautiful city is known for arts, cultural diversity and the beauty of its landscape. I work with some incredibly committed, intelligent and passionate colleagues who want to see our city and its people prosper.

What does your role involve?

I am the subject matter specialist on community engagement for Council and it is my role to guide Council in community engagement in culture and practice. In culture, because it is what our staff (should) exemplify in their various roles as an engaging organisation. In practice, to advise and support the delivery of engagement projects across the whole of Council. My role also involves social planning, research and community development. I lead a team of three amazing officers that manage portfolios that range from major events, communications, community engagement, grants, volunteer centre management and a community library.

What would be a typical day in your working life?

It could include a catch up session with a colleague in engineering, environment, properties or economic development to brainstorm on the engagement component of a project, do stakeholder analysis or develop a plan. I might work on a report, research or submission to the State parliament, hold a meeting with a government agency, business or community group, attend staff meetings, catch up with my team members, spending 5-10 minutes observing the community from my office window or a short walk in the CBD. And I love going home to see my family again.

Can you share some of the good and bad experiences you have encountered over your career and how they have helped you grow as an engagement professional and person?

I have been privileged to have had some amazing people mentor and support me throughout my career. I am very proud of my achievements but I am not a self-made man. It is just wonderful being in a positive relationship with quality people who genuinely care about you as a person and as a professional. That is why I am passionate about giving myself to mentoring and supporting other people to be a better version of themselves. So my best experiences are with people. I have had a few bad experiences and what I would say is if you find yourself in a work environment that is or becomes toxic, undercuts your values and damaging to your wellbeing, don’t put up with it.

If you are working on a project at the moment would you like to share the journey to date?

One of my priority projects when I commenced my position 10 months was to guide the development of the Council’s Community Engagement Strategy. I led a Working Group across Council in research, consultation with staff and community stakeholders, drafting and review to deliver this project. We developed a framework that comprised of a policyprocedure and toolkit. The Framework was adopted by Council in May 2017. These resources are essentially to support Council staff so my next focus is the development of a training package and schedule for staff to build capacity. In addition, I am working on developing a public participation manual to support our community stakeholders in engaging with Council.

  1. What principles did you find most useful in carrying out this project?

Council’s engagement framework is based on the IAP2 core values and code of ethics. In approving the framework, Council also approved the recommendation for it to join IAP2 Australasia as a corporate member. On projects like this, it is useful to understand the historical context around engagement and ensure that everyone is on board across the organisation. Learning and communication is central to this.

  1. Did you come across any surprises on this project?

No surprises really, it is not an unfamiliar terrain. I had fun doing it and working with my colleagues. I was quite impressed with the interest and participation from technical experts like Council engineers in the process. It is great when you see professionals like engineers, builders and architects put people ahead of machines and pavements.

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?

It is doing what I am wired for. It doesn’t feel like ‘work’. At some point in my career overseas I felt I could pay my employee, the government, for doing what I do. Added to that is the satisfaction of helping to solve real, sometimes complex problems.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?

The realisation that sometimes despite your best intentions you don’t break through to remove the barriers to public participation in decision making. So you have to keep improving, seeking new ways and means to do things. It can be tricky at times for engagement professionals working in political contexts governed by entrenched ideologies or the stakes are high.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?

Engagement has always been a major part of my position throughout my career, although at different scales and contexts. I guess what has happened in the last few years in the realisation that engagement is not just an add-on, rather it is an essential aspect of governance in the corporate and public domains. It is a professional calling with its own principles and requirements in terms of knowledge and skills needed to get best possible outcomes. In IAP2 we talk about the Core Values and Code of Ethics. You are either doing it right or you are not doing it at all.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?

Not in any particular order but I would say three big lessons I have learnt are:

  • Your credibility and the credibility of your organisation matters and will leave a trail.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected, every time. Things can change quickly in any direction and you need to be able to respond adequately.
  • Look after yourself and look out for your mates.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?

Without any hesitation I would ask them to consider doing the IAP2 Certificate in Engagement course and become a member of IAP2 Australasia. I found the course to be very useful and practical. The modules I undertook were delivered by skilled facilitators and we had a great class. It will also be of value for them to network with other engagement practitioners. It will require investing their time and resources but it is an investment that is worth it.