Forget about engagement. Think about participation.

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.

7 thoughts on “Forget about engagement. Think about participation.

  1. Does participation = Uses? Sometimes, not always. Participation can be “participation in a conversation about an issue” which is a Project which generally produced an Abandoned Orphan Result. It can be “participation in developing a strategy about an issue” which is a Project which hopefully produces a Adoptable Orphan Result. Or it can be “participating in actually doing something about an issue” which is another Project if it involves creating an asset or it’s a Use if it involve using an asset. Clear as mud eh? And as you say, participation is about people choosing to engage/participate whereas engage is far too often doing things to/at/for people.

  2. For those who are not familiar with the terms Phil is using, they are from

    I think participation ideally means that all users are involved in making the whole strategy. At the very least, it would mean a conversation between the people doing a project, and the people using the result of that project.

  3. This discussion makes me think that motivation is as important as action. If we are motivated to create participation, we might act in the same way as we would if our motivation was to cover our bums, for example to “demonstrate consultation” which is a common euphemism used by leaders to justify making decisions (often with self interest) not supported by relevant evidence. We cannot force people to participate, we can only encourage them. I think “engagement” (in the best sense of the word) suggests the motivation of a cheerleader, encouraging participation, seeking to empower those who might not recognise their ability influence in a situation. I think that role is vital, as is our ability to hold our cynicism in check in the face of all the false invocation of “engagement” without the underlying motivation of participation.

  4. I saw this primarily as a shift in perspective. From ‘I am engaging them’ to ‘They are participating with me’ or best ‘We are participating together’.

    For me, it is the difference between ‘We need to drive engagement’ to ‘We need to find out what people want so they will participate’.

    The actions you take; set up a website, hold an event, Tweet and so forth might be the same. But the reasons behind it will probably be different.

  5. I like the way you frame it, Jack. I’d venture that the difference in your reasons, would make quite a difference in the website you create, the event you hold.

    Dave, agreed about the underlying motivation. What do about is still mysterious, and I think if it isn’t then we are getting it wrong. I know cheerleading encourages participation in certain settings but in others, I think quietly listening would encourage more.

    I am even more alarmed by the self-contradiction in the idea of “empowering” than I am with “engaging”. It implies that I hold all the power and I am going to release the amount I decide to. Your agency and the existence of the power imbalance in the first place are out of scope.

    1. Certainly listening is crucial to understanding what people want… but many don’t share their desires pro-actively, it’s often about asking the right questions in the right environment. Something I didn’t manage to communicate before is this: the words “engage” and “empower” might be putting the cart before the horse semantically, but regardless of what word you use to describe what you’re doing (because different people might mean different things despite using the same words), I’m saying the underlying motivation (actually inviting collaboration/participation vs. bum covering – wanting to “tick the consultation box” *without actually wanting participation* – is the key difference). There’s a lot of bum covering out there, and I suspect many keen people are fatigued by the mirage of participation…

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