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The Triangle of Engagement: An Unusual Way of Looking at the Usual Suspects

This paper by John May, written primarily for practitioners and commissioners of public participation and community engagement, introduces the “Triangle of Engagement,” which postulates that the higher the level of engagement required from participants, the fewer people there are who are willing or able to make this commitment. Some of the implications of this model for the practice of public participation are then considered.

Here are some excerpts to give you a feel for the article:

Unlike most thinking about public participation, the triangle focuses on the participants themselves instead of on the motivations and objectives of the practitioners. The relevance of the new theory is demonstrated by applying it to the real-life problem of the “usual suspects.”

Increasing the numbers of people who take part in public consultation and community engagement is regarded by many as a desirable aim of public policy. This may be for political or ideological reasons-to develop democracy by empowering more citizens-or for marketing reasons to do with understanding customers and aligning public services with customers’ needs and wants. (For a further discussion of the role of marketing in local government in particular see May and Newman, 1999.) But whatever the motivation, the intention is the same: to get more citizens involved in local governance.

The Usual Suspects

Public participation practitioners and commissioners have tended to use a ‘ladder of participation’ or one of its later developments as their conceptual framework (see, for example, Arnstein, 1969; Wilcox, 1995) . But these devices focus on the practitioner and the commissioner, not the participant. If practitioners give any real thought to the participants, it is often to denigrate or dismiss them. This is especially true of the most committed members of the public: the usual suspects. Rowe and Shepherd (2002) are writing in the extract below about the NHS, but the basic attitude can be found in any large public agency:

Health authorities have recognized the political capital to be gained from public involvement in health needs assessment and priority-setting exercises but have been able to limit public influence over service planning by using the issue of representation to delegitimize user views. User-group representatives have been labelled as ‘activists’ and their views have been dismissed as not being typical of ‘normal users’…public engagement activities have thus been used to enhance the credibility of commissioning organizations without devolving decision-making power to users.

Similarly, an Australian contributor to the IDeA’s local government online discussion forum commented in 2005 that:

…[denigrating] the members of the community that regularly provide local governments with unwanted feedback is a universal problem…A few years back I made a video about the ‘faithful few’ who regularly attend meetings of council, ask hairy questions and instigate special electors meetings from time to time. Most of my colleagues couldn’t understand why I would want to find out about why these people did this. Clearly they ‘didn’t have a life’ etc….[and] they are labelled ‘the minority’ because clearly, by their silence, the rest of the community is fine with what their council is doing (Piasecka, 2005).

There is a kind of Catch 22 in operation here: public services want to engage with you if you are ‘ordinary’, but if you show interest in engaging with them then you must be ‘extraordinary’ and therefore they needn’t listen to you. There is, admittedly, the very occasional voice expressing a contrary opinion. Public participation pressure group, Involve, recently wrote that: ‘Organizations sometimes try to avoid involving “the usual suspects”, which has become a term of denigration for people who habitually give time and effort to what they see as their civic responsibilities. Describing someone as a usual suspect should never be grounds to exclude them from a process’ (Involve, 2005, p. 26).

The usual suspects have two important characteristics that are key to a new understanding of public participation, namely number and engagement. The usual suspects are few in number, and have a high degree of engagement, as opposed to most members of the public who have a relatively low degree of engagement.

Plotting levels of engagement against the numbers involved (the prevalence) gives rise to a new model, the triangle of engagement….

Implications for Practice

Some of the important implications of the triangle of engagement model are that:

  • The usual suspects should be cherished, not blackguarded.
  • Their capacity for engagement needs to be strengthened.
  • There is no ‘phantom army’ of real people obscured from view by the usual suspects.
  • Representativeness is not the only criterion to use when seeking to engage the community-capacity for engagement is just as important.
  • There is a trade-off between representativeness and capacity for engagement, although there are ways of enlarging the pool of participants at the higher levels of engagement.
  • A small number of participants does not necessarily mean that a community engagement exercise is a failure.
  • ‘Consultation fatigue’ strikes differentially, not uniformly.

And the model raises a question: how to listen to hard-to-hear groups and to businesses….

John May is a social researcher and community engagement consultant to the Metropolitan Police Authority, and visiting senior lecturer at Middlesex University Business School.

Public Money and Management 27 (1), 69-75. (2007)

Resource Link: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a907406263~frm=titlelink

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