Recently I noticed myself using the word “engage” a lot. I was engaging this person and those people. I even thought maybe what I do is “stakeholder engagement”.
Then I realised I had this badly wrong. The whole idea of “engaging” people is self-contradictory. An oxymoron.
In government, NGOs and even business, we make decisions that affect people. Those people will only use the thing we make if it works well for them. To make something people are going to use, we need to know what their needs are, and how they think about them. We need the people affected by a decision to have input into it. Ideally they’d be active participants, driving the decision-making process themselves.
People who are affected by other peoples decisions have not failed to notice this, as expressed in the phrase nothing about us without us.
I believe that is what decision-makers intend when we think about engagement.
The problem is that “engaging” people is something we do to them. This gets things off in exactly the opposite of the direction we intend. It gets us thinking about things we can do. We can hold an event. We can make a website. Communicate our message. Seek feedback. The busier we are doing things to people, the less likely we are to notice what they are doing, or saying – the things that are going to give us insight into what works for them.
The word “participation” is more useful here as it is not something we can do. Only the people affected can participate. This opens a big question about what we can do, which is a very good place to start. It evokes not knowing, not doing, but wondering, looking around and noticing. If you try to figure out what to do, the language quickly provides cues. OK, we’ll “get” people to participate. No, we won’t.
Doing something that results in participation is really hard. It is appealing to take comfort in the idea of “engaging” people. But it’s false comfort.
We can try to meet some of the people who are affected by the decision we are working on. Peel some spuds in the wharekai. Initiate a relationship. If we get that right, they might let us know what they think. We can observe. We can listen. We can try to make sense of other people’s worlds and how they see things. These will all help us to figure out what decision will work for them.
There is a contradiction inherent in making decisions that affect other people. If there was really a need, the people affected would notice and initiate a conversation about it. We are on the back foot from the start. Or at least on a high horse, as the experts, designers, innovators or entrepreneurs. Of course it is great that we take the initiative to make the world better for others. But we will never succeed at that if we are blinded by our own awesomeness. We need to really see the people we are designing for, walk in their shoes, learn their language for talking about their challenges.