Making the Case for Public Engagement
In this economic climate, the value of public engagement needs to be articulated in economic terms. Involve’s toolkit demonstrates that you don’t need specialist skills or knowledge to make the business case for engagement.
Download the July 2011 toolkit from Involve and Consumer Focus, Making the Case for Public Engagement: How to demonstrate the value of consumer input. Toolkit authors are Edward Andersson, Emily Fennell and Thea Shahrokh.
There is a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence in support of public engagement and some case study evidence showing that the value of engagement, if done well, is more than the upfront costs. But there is little hard data to effectively express the benefits of engagement in cash terms.
It has never been more important to be able to make this business case. The UK has recently experienced the most severe recession since the 1930s and public spending will continue to be cut heavily in the years to come, and engagement professionals will need to articulate the value of their work in economic terms.
This practical Toolkit will help users understand and make the business case for engagement and present it to internal and external audiences. It can be used for all kinds of engagement from small scale ‘one off’ projects to major exercises across an entire town or wider local authority area.
It is aimed at those who manage, design, deliver, plan or commission public engagement projects. It does not require the reader to have detailed knowledge of economics.
Here is some additional info from the Involve website by Edward Andersson:
Involve started thinking about the costs and benefits of engagement way back in 2005 (Here’s the original report). Back then there was limited interest; people felt there was little need to justify engagement and participation on economic grounds. Things are very different now. The public sector faces massive cuts across the board. Engagement and consultation are certainly not immune. I know of many posts that have been cut, projects scrapped and organisations that have lost their funding in the field. Making the case for engagement in this environment is difficult. In the past non-monetary benefits were the main arguments for this way of working. Community development workers, youth workers and consultation officers would point out that engagement was good for democracy, good for the self-esteem of the participants and good for social cohesion. Using monetary savings or efficiencies as an argument for a more democratic approach felt wrong. Clearly things have changed. When people are looking high and low for places to cut we cannot shy away from the economic arguments for participation.
The guidebook we launch today is a practical tool for you to make the case for engagement and determine how to measure the value of a project. The document consists of the main report and two excel sheets. One sheet tracks the costs and benefits of a single project and one compares the costs and benefits of two projects with each other.
The toolkit cannot and should not be used to create a false justifcation for projects that do not work. What the toolkit allows you to do is to articulate the benefits that you have seen but have lacked the language to speak about in the past.
I’ve had some emails from people who have welcomed the toolkit but worried that it would be difficult and not the toolkit for them. They assume they need specialised education, skills and skills to make this work. I believe that they are wrong and here are my five top tips for how to make the most of the toolkit:
- Don’t be daunted. Start with what you have. The toolkit was designed for non-economists. You don’t need to do a course before you start, nor do you need to gather all data on everything before you begin. Assess your benefits and costs using existing information you have, identify things you can’t measure yet and start taking steps to fill in the blanks later on. By thinking creatively you can often come up with proxy measures; you don’t always need to carry out new research. Of course it is also important not to make exaggerated claims. Know the limitations of your work and what can be said and what not based on the evidence.
- Don’t forget the potential costs of non-engagement. All engagement seems expensive unless the costs of not engaging are measured (or approximated) alongside the costs of your project. In most cases the alternative to public engagement is not ‘do nothing’ but to carry out PR and marketing, limited consultation, market research or other activities – all of which have costs. The comparator excel sheet allows you to make these calculations.
- Use the business case to tell stories about why engagement matters. Equations and spreadsheets won’t shift people’s thinking on their own. We are all emotional animals and it is as important to place the data in a compelling narrative as it is to gather the data in the first place. Don’t forget that people are motivated both by opportunities and threats and in the current environment many managers are driven by the latter. If you can point to real cases where no engagement led to real negative impacts (conflict, costs etc) it can be very persuasive and make a convincing case for engagement as a risk management technique in difficult times.
- Tailor your argument to fit your audience. Your business case is not an end in itself; it is a tool to get a message across and to convince. Make sure you understand your audience and what is most persuasive to them. Will cost savings over a longer term or budget savings that accrue to different budget-holders be persuasive? Are there non-monetary measures that matter to your decision makers, suhc as health outcomes, an improved reputation or less conflict? Often (even in the midst of cuts) it is not just pounds and pence that matter to people. You need to understand this to make a persuasive case.
- Finally, if you really want to persuade people, give them the opportunity to see engagement first hand. I have found few things as persuasive as being a firsthand eye witness. A dry report is no substitute for a lived experience. The business case is only part of a wider process of educating colleagues and partners in the merit of engagement.
Download the toolkit:
The Toolkit also links to two spreadsheets:
To feedback your comments, results and experiences, or for more information, contact Edward@involve.org.uk