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Tales from the Trenches with Dan Popping

My name is Dan Popping and I am based in Adelaide SA. I’ve been working in the community engagement sector for over 15 years; including Australian Red Cross, three local Councils (West Torrens, Campbelltown and Adelaide City), the Department of Premier and Cabinet SA, and now at Bang the Table. I have a passion for building organisational capability and supporting them to embed engagement into their everyday work. I have planned, delivered and supported hundreds of engagement projects and have learnt many great lessons along the way. In my spare time I love to travel and am often seen driving my kids to school or running along the River Torrens.

I’ve been an active member of the South Australian engagement network and am always more than happy to share a story (good, bad or otherwise), hand out engagement resources and don’t shy away from presenting at talks, meet-ups or conferences. I am a regular at local IAP2 events, am involved in Engage2Act and was a big part of the Better Together Program and Open State for the South Australian government. Bang the Table are online community engagement specialists, and we are passionate about empowering organisations and the communities they care about. We work throughout the world to provide an online engagement space, giving people access to information to enable them to have their say on matters that are important to them. If you have ever gone online to give feedback to your local Council, then it’s likely you have used our EngagementHQ software.

My current role is all about supporting clients to implement robust engagement activities and assisting them to establish, run and report on the outcomes. Whilst we specialise in online engagement, often I am providing advice on how to select the most appropriate engagement tools (to match the target audience) and how to integrate both online and traditional methods to enable people to get involved and contribute. Typically, my day involves speaking with our clients and helping them to prepare and run online engagement activities. I am often running training in how to best use our EngagementHQ software or helping a new client to establish an online platform for the very first time so they can begin a journey of engagement with their community and stakeholders. At the end of the day, it’s all about giving people a voice in decisions that affect their lives and helping find the best solution to an often tricky or complex problem.

Although I don’t particularly like the phrase “best practice engagement” I am often asked about. I actually prefer the phrase “best as I can, practice” because often there are other limitations and constraints outside of your control and it’s all about doing the best you can with the resources you have. Anyhow… in my experience, there are several key success factors that need to be considered and addressed at the planning stage.

Here are 10 key questions I believe need to be asked, BEFORE you go out to engage.
1. What is the actual problem to be solved or the opportunity for influence? What are the elements that are negotiable and what is non-negotiable?
2. Do you have internal buy-in and are the final decision-makers on-board?
3. Who are your target audience? Who will be affected by, or interested in, this project and are there any hard to reach groups?
4. What engagement tools or techniques will you use, and do they suit your target audience? Do you need a range of different engagement tools to ensure everyone can have their say?
5. Do you have adequate resources, budget and timeframes?
6. Are there any risks? What could go wrong and how might you mitigate potential risks?
7. How will you promote this engagement? Do you need a communication plan to actively target and promote an opportunity for participation?
8. How will you review and analyse the feedback and data? Do you need to provide a summary or a detailed report (and who is your audience, decision-makers or community)?
9. How will you ‘close the loop’ and let people/respondents know that their feedback/contribution/input was truly considered?
10. How will you evaluate this project? What will success look like at the end and how will you know you have achieved this?

I have learnt many valuable lessons in my time as an engagement practitioner. One of the most valuable however, is to remember that at the end of the day we are dealing with people. I’ve found it crucial to learn to put myself in the shoes of others, and ensure that engagement strategies are developed and implemented with those people in mind. Questions I often ask myself are: who is interested in or impacted by this decision? How do they already feel about this project/issue? Will they be able to easily digest the information we are providing so that they can fully understand the problem or opportunity to participate? What is the best way to engage with them, and what will they need to support their participation? Where are they and how do we go to them? I’d recommend that after you write your project engagement strategy, that you go back and review it with these questions in mind.

The other powerful lesson I have learnt is the importance of effectively ‘closing the loop’. I find that this is not often done well or sometimes is completely forgotten. When done well however, and you reiterate what you asked and what you heard, it becomes a vital part in building trust and ongoing rapport with you community. It validates peoples time, passion, contributions, local and/or expert knowledge and opens the door for shared decision-making and future re-engagement. ‘closing the loop’ effectively can also be very helpful when your community wants to do something that you cannot deliver on, or are unable to do. It demonstrates that you have listened and considered all voices, and enables you to give a sound reasoning for why the final decision has been made (even though they may have preferred an alternative solution).

For anyone new to the community engagement sector I encourage you to network and learn from others in the field. Think of your target audience when planning, designing and delivering an engagement process and be creative in the tools and methods you use. And please don’t forget to ‘close the loop’ and report back to your communities the final outcome.

Please come up and say hi next time you see me, or connect with me at dan.popping@bangthetable.com, on Twitter @DanPopping or search for me on LinkedIn