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What are the future skills for engagement practitioners?

Image of girl sitting in front of a coloured wall.

With Sally Hussey | Consultant Writer and Researcher

Would unlocking stories of failed engagement evolve the practice of engagement in Australia today? New eBook outlines challenges and recommendations for future skills for practitioners.

Community engagement in Australia today is at an impasse. Despite decades long professionalisation and its embeddedness in key functions of government, questions still surround just what it is. On the one hand, it’s employed as a ‘spray on solution’ for governments and private industry alike. Under theorised, under researched, and with no formal vocational path, it seems to lack rigour. On the other hand, it is an empowering response to the current mistrust in government. Its interface with democracy underpins its practice and overarching work to empower people and communities to impact decisions that affect their everyday life.

But it deserves a more nuanced understanding than this binary permits. Especially given its increasing application across government and private organisations.

My new ebook, Future Skills for Engagement Practitioners, researched and written for IAP2 Australasia, provides a deeper reflection on the current state of the industry and the practice of community engagement in Australia today.

On a practical level, it questions the evolution of the practice: What might the future of community engagement look like? What are the future skills for engagement practitioners? On a theoretical and structural level, it confronts deeper issues: Is viewing engagement as an agent of democracy – the link between democracy and community good – doing a disservice to the evolution of the practice? Would unlocking stories of failed engagement evolve the practice of engagement in Australia today? Can a decolonising lens inform engagement processes without perpetuating marginalisation?

While questions around its practice more broadly feed into the professionalisation of public engagement, here they are filtered through the lens of the engagement practitioner. This serves to redress attention to this unique role and experience. For, where research space has been given to the professionalisation of public engagement, less so to the engagement practitioner.

Through a series of in-depth interviews, I glean insights from some of Australia’s key actors – engagement scholars, consultants and practitioners working across public and private sectors with a wide range of experience. Not only was I able to ask questions relating to their expertise, but I was able to gain a close-up look at unexplored aspects of engagement practice for the contemporary practitioner.

Challenges facing engagement practitioners

In the eBook, I identify five fundamental challenges that face engagement practitioners today and test commonly-held assumptions of community engagement. Amongst other things, these challenges speak to:

  • the imbalance in practitioner skills – the gap between emerging and established practitioners – and subsequent impact on the efficacy of engagement;
  • the misalignment of engagement as communications, PR or journalism that has fed misconceptions of community engagement;
  • and, with reforms around participatory engagement, the push toward models of engagement that have little bearing on engagement activities, impacting both practice and the way that these models are being perceived into the future.

As a counter-response, I provide eight recommendations for engagement practitioners to navigate an increasingly complex policy environment.

Crisis in equity

Without question, in Australia, contemporary engagement practice is well evolved: a component of local democracy, it is now embedded in key functions of local governments and procedures of public administration and management practice.

But the increased visibility – indeed legislative prominence – of engagement raises questions around the quality of practice and democratic drivers of equity and inclusivity. Does the promise of engagement hold more authenticity than its practice? What assumptions do practitioners arriving at engagement from variety of professional backgrounds bring to the role? How do practitioners respond to increasing uncertainty, rapid change and endemic mistrust of governments?

One key area of recommendation in Future Skills for Engagement Practitioners is around equity and inclusion. Public engagement is one of the ways governments use to identify policy priorities in Indigenous contexts, for instance. But where outcomes are at odds with the kind of changes desired by Indigenous communities, it has, unfortunately, become ‘a repetitive cycle.’ The challenge is how engagement processes ensure the inclusion of the diversity of Indigenous communities to counter their marginalisation.

Indeed, the push toward deliberative engagement across developed countries speaks to governments engaging in deeper dialogue with communities – communities who are increasingly demanding it. The engagement profession, by comparison, is evolving in unforeseen ways. (We only need to turn to the disruption of the pandemic that upended traditional face-to-face engagement and rapid uptake of online methods.) It, like policies and governments, is shaped by a constant flux – not to mention the rise of citizen-led democracy and the necessary backlash against the numerous failings of liberal democracies evidenced by the lowest ebb of trust in governments across the developed world.

Equity in decision making and processes of inclusion are increasingly paramount. A salient case in point is marked by the incoming Prime Minister’s acceptance speech, the first election victory speech to place Indigenous Peoples as central to incoming government’s policies. This acknowledgement marks a turning point. Not only in Australian political history but in the tangible impact on future skills required for engagement practitioners.

Future Skills for Engagement Practitioners is freely available to download at IAP2 Australasia here.

Sally HusseyAuthor Bio: Sally Hussey is a consultant writer, researcher and global thought leader. She interrogates challenges in public engagement and community consultation to inform on-the-ground practitioners, engagement and policy professionals and the wider community on cutting edge insights and analysis.

Sally has an extensive background in the academic, publishing and arts sectors and is recognised by the Who’s Who of Australian Women.