Some practical ideas
It’s really helpful to be aware of institutional and organisational barriers to engagement and your own role in terms of what you can change, what you can do and how you can negotiate the ground in-between. We need to be aware that ‘we’ quite often have the power to define the issue/problem – who is the problem and what the solution is – without referring back to people and understanding more about their issues and aspirations.
There are some classic themes that come up again and again in community engagement practice which are not that hard to address. While they are applicable generally, they are particularly relevant in the context of equalities groups. The Scottish good practice guidance outlines some of these common themes which need to be considered in terms of engagement activity and the importance of the brokerage role that you may need to play if people are to believe that their views are seriously taken into account:
- Disabling and inappropriate language: the terms used to describe different equalities groups, their needs and characteristics is a sensitive issue and one where good practice changes over time. People can put off by agencies’ use of inappropriate language
- Missed opportunities to create community solidarity: Equalities groups often find themselves competing for scarce resources within extremely disadvantaged communities. Opportunities are not taken to strengthen equalities groups by generating understanding of different types of discrimination and creating common bonds
- Mixed messages discourage participation: on the one hand public agencies say they want to engage with equalities groups. At the same time public policy debates on issues such as youth offending, ‘bed blocking’, immigration and gay rights all too often present people as a ‘problem’ to be solved. There is a lot of misinformation out there about different groups of people and we are all susceptible to those negative messages.
- Engagement is organised to suit agencies: Despite some progress, timescales for consultation are often too short, jargon is commonplace and information is not supplied in different formats
- Left out of important decisions: equalities groups are often left out, particularly of the important early stages of planning community engagement. Space at partnership tables is limited and usually taken by mainstream community organisations
- Pigeon-holed as service users: equalities groups are regularly consulted on a fairly narrow range of issues defined by agencies as particularly relevant to their needs
- ‘All the same’: assumptions are made that the needs of equalities groups are very similar, when in fact they are very diverse. A one size fits all approach to equalities doesn’t work Mainstream organisations reinforce inequalities: much community engagement activity is conducted or supported by mainstream organisations in the public and voluntary sectors. It is still unusual for such organisations to have good representation of equalities groups amongst their staff and governing bodies
- Experience of personal services disempowering: people take account of their personal experiences of health, housing and other services when considering whether community engagement will be worthwhile. Services are still often experienced as ‘top down’ and authoritarian
- Consultation rather than dialogue: Using methods that allow relationships to be established over time is particularly important for equalities groups, to build trust in service providers and change attitudes about their capabilities
- Too little change: there was instant recognition of the term ‘consultation fatigue’. However not enough change of real consequence is happening given the amount of time and persistent effort it takes equalities groups to have their voice heard
- Confusing and complex environment: public sector policies and agencies are seen as confusing, complex and constantly changing. Equalities groups find it particularly difficult to keep abreast of relevant issues and identify who is responsible for what
- Words mean different things to different people: agencies use a number of different words – e.g. participation, consultation and involvement – when talking about community engagement. Often the meaning, in terms of the nature and extent of influence on offer isn’t shared, either amongst agencies or with equalities groups. This leads to confusion and unmet expectations. It can be difficult to get agencies and partnerships to devote time to issues like these that are seen as ‘process not product’.
Can you think of ways that you might have unintentionally excluded people from involvement?We all have a certain amount of ‘professional power’ and it’s useful to recognise how this can create barriers for peopleNext