Inclusive engagement is non-negotiable in covid-normal

Everyday people in positions of power make decisions that create barriers to inclusive engagement. Despite technological advancements, an abundance of free resources and informed internal advocates, the same barriers cause inequitable access to participation. Failing to plan for the inclusion of lived experience has financial, reputational and relational risk far greater than the cost of entry level methods.

There has been a shift in how decision-making power is institutionalised thanks to strong champions of public participation in decision making, community development workers and researchers. As a result, minimum standards and Community Engagement Frameworks/Participation Plans have been legislated. Software services have standardised engagement and stakeholder management platforms, and companies have been commissioned to audit implementation. The practice continues to nudge forward with dedicated practitioners championing lived experience and equitable access to decision making.

Practitioners are at different stages of learning what inclusion means in practice. I’m not immune to saying/doing the wrong thing either. However, participation can’t be considered a process of self-selection if a portion of the community can’t self-select in the first place. This could be because the organisation hasn’t earned their trust and experiences, or the engagement hasn’t been planned with their participation in mind.

I’ve been embedded in organisations and within months identified the same barriers – engagement is used to justify decisions. A peer once called it socialising the work done behind closed doors. Inclusion is an afterthought, the thing you do when you’ve catered to everybody else. This disproportionately excludes Aboriginal people, people with disability and their families, children and young people, culturally and linguistically diverse people and seniors. That’s a lot of people when compared to population data. Planning and investing in inclusive practice expands who can influence decisions, creating better outcomes for all.

The pandemic needs to be the catalyst for this to change. When the Victorian Government failed to produce communication in multiple languages, heads shook. When NSW had the same mistake months later, heads drooped. We’re not lost for recent examples. Leaders declared that there was no going back to normal, only going forward, yet things went back because it’s familiar and comfortable. If business as usual defines our automatic response in an emergency, then inclusive practice needs to become non-negotiable as a matter of urgency.

Where do we start?

  1. Truth telling. Acknowledge where the organisation is at and map intentional, measurable steps forward with community representatives. Understand the important role truth telling contributes in culture and organisational change.
  2. Understand your audience. Who makes up your community and what are their communication and participation needs? Invest in building relationships that support the organisation to plan and design with a diversity of lived experience in mind.
  3. Diversify your engagement methods and communications. When’s the last time you enjoyed reading a 100-page document, in corporate language after a long day at work and then completing a survey? Engagement should be, well engaging and on the terms of the participant. Research of over 600 international examples show that deliberative methods create better outcomes and co-design is core in other industries to work with lived experience.
  4. Grow into a culturally safe workplace. Do the work to earn the expertise and lived experience of people from marginalised groups. If your engagement is culturally unsafe or questions are triggering, the $50 voucher you’re offering for participation or feel good vibes of intergenerational benefits hardly seem like fair reimbursement for the consequences of participating.
  5. Value lived experience as a subject matter expert. Budget goes where values flow. What if we truly walked alongside Aboriginal people as experts and hire lived experience to advise on your project at the same time as hiring other subject matter expertise?*
  6. Invest in staff capacity building for inclusive practice. As mentioned at the beginning, the cost of entry level measures has never been lower. Everyone who opens a text-based document needs to know how to use built-in features to make it accessible. Everyone doing online programming or uploading videos needs to know the standards.

To me, meaningful engagement is the compounding effect of many threads coming together. It’s about doing the reflective, messy, deep, relational, trust building, empathetic work to earn the stories and experiences of people traditional kept at the margins. It’s intentional and brings in people who have never interacted with organisations before. Hearing their stories is a privilege. Meaningful, inclusive engagement leads to outcomes you couldn’t have produced in isolation.

Will you commit to fighting for inclusive practice as non-negotiable?

*This article wouldn’t be possible without the peers who walk alongside me, questioning and reflecting on what engagement practice can be. Special mention to Joshua Staines for peer reviewing this piece and his idea directly referenced in point five.

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