Tales from the Trenches with Tracey Wilson

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I started my consultancy for flexibility around my family in 2001. Consulting’s a hard gig, but rewarding in many ways, and I’m proud to still be operating after seventeen years. Having travelled a lot during that time, I made the decision to be more home-based while my daughter completed years 11 and 12. So for two years I’ve really enjoyed consolidating and expanding my networks in the Far North [Queensland]. There’s a lot going on in Northern Australia! We make the most of the FNQ lifestyle – sailing, exploring the tropics and enjoying the warm winters.

Tell us a bit about your organisation.
Working Visions, my consultancy, is about systemic sustainable development, capacity building and change management at a community and organisational level. Authentic engagement and communication underpins our work. We’re nimble and work primarily across the eastern seaboard and northern Australia and have been operating for over seventeen years. We establish strong relationships with our clients, therefore most of our work stems from repeat custom or client referrals.

What does your role involve?
I’m managing director and basically responsible for all aspects of the business. I work collaboratively with other consultants who have specialist expertise as the need arises. For several years I had the privilege of being a Board Director of IAP2 Australasia at a time of immense organisational change and strong growth. Apart from my consultancy I actively pursue opportunities to create change and contribute to policy and strategy at a board level and am currently on the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Board. I’ve always lived in regional areas by choice but have been able to work across all the Australian capitals as well as some really remote areas of Australia. One of the reasons I was interested in being an IAP2 Ambassador was due to my linkages into regional areas across Queensland.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
There’s usually nothing typical about my working life! On any given day I can be in a remote Aboriginal community on the Cape in the morning and facilitating a business think tank in a capital that evening. I’m often called in at a “crisis” stage when things have gone pear-shaped – usually due to a poor or non-existent planning process. I underpin my daily approach with a view to building the capacity of those I’m working with. I provide advice and mentoring across leadership, strategy, engagement.

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?
Fairly recently I had a call from the civil works manager at a local authority. He was fairly new to his role and the region. He’d been referred to me by a colleague in another division of the council. His words were “I don’t think we’ve done community engagement well and I’d like your help to get it right.” Heaven on a stick! I was able to build his team’s capacity through experiential training and participation at actual activities; mentor his team and embed a framework for his division which I understand is now being expanded across Council. This was heartening for me professionally and personally from the initial referral through to the implied trust of my knowledge and experience, plus the opportunity to build capacity at an individual and organisational level.
Having worked with Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities for many years I have wide ranging experience in what’s commonly termed “Indigenous engagement”. Sporadically, I’ve received calls from engagement practitioners who have somehow managed to obtain Indigenous engagement projects with relatively no prior experience in this area and are looking for a “101” crash course. I have a myriad of issues around this (too many to list here) but what I will say is that there are protocols to understand, relationships to build, recent and past historical factors and many other aspects that need to be considered when working and engaging with our First Nation people.

If you are working on a project at the moment would you like to share the journey to date?
A project that I’ve recently completed was the CE management of final Eliminate Dengue Program (EDP and recently rebranded to World Mosquito Program) projects in Australia. EDP is a global research project based at Monash University and seed funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation seven years ago. The Program is dedicated to improving global health conditions and strengthening capacity of local communities to reduce the threat of mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya. The Program started in the Cairns suburb of Yorkeys Knob and is now being delivered in seven countries worldwide. An interesting aspect from a CE perspective was how, as the program maturity and research evolved, so too did engagement methodologies. It was fantastic to work on a program that had almost total public acceptance and one which actively involved the public in the research. Check out www.eliminatedengue.com/project

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
Allowing the public to be included and to have a say from an informed basis. I use engagement as a capacity building tool so I see individual, group and whole-of-community change which is very rewarding.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
1. Organisations deciding on behalf of the public, the terms of an engagement process without genuine prior consultation.
2. Lack of funds for evaluation of engagement projects and activities.
3. Organisations not having an embedded holistic engagement framework across all divisions.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
I worked in political offices in my early career and was lucky enough to work in the NT for the initial Member for Arnhem. As we flew around north-east Arnhem land in a light aircraft visiting communities, I saw first-hand the value of authentic engagement – listening, respecting and advocating for an outcome. I seemed to naturally flow into engagement from those experiences.

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?
1. (Post) disaster engagement is hard work and those working in that sphere, particularly in community re-building, need to make sure they have a support network for de-briefing.
2. Retain a sense of humour – it can build rapport at times when process (no matter how authentic) doesn’t. Be flexible and genuinely welcome input at all levels.
3. Change is constant. Do your research. Whether at a policy/political level though to a project planning level. Make sure you keep informed of matters which can affect your project planning and be ready to adapt as necessary.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
1. Wear the correct clothes for the situation you’re working in. I’ve seen far too many stilettos on visiting professionals in regional Queensland paddocks!
2. Be authentic, open and honest with your “community”. If there’s already a level of distrust find a champion or respected community member who can provide advice. Note that this may not be someone on your stakeholder list provided by the project manager!
3. Don’t rely solely on technology for engagement activities. This is becoming more common as time and budgetary limitations impact on projects. Keep demographics and reach in mind.