Consultation Engagement and Feedback– what makes it real

This is the first of a series

“Policymakers and program managers are working blind. They would do a much better job, and better outcomes would be delivered for communities and taxpayers, if they were better connected to communities — with ease of access to those who know, those who live out there.”

Peter Strong    The Mandarin 20 March 2023


There are any number of frameworks, models, principles and/or programs available that purport to be the ‘answer’ to effective consultation and engagement processes.


Whether for feedback from clients and customers, engaging staff in change processes, involving community for consultation on policy or program directions.  The community engagement and consultation ‘industry’ has grown exponentially in recent years.


I am reminded on my days working in workplace reform, where one of the workers in the water industry looked at me with resignation on his face and said ‘Sure we have consultation and participation – the answers walk in and we have to work out what question to be..’


I sometimes suspect, despite many fancy feedback mechanisms, and the constant requests for ‘Tell me how we went… , whether it is still more of a triumph of form over substance. Whether the fundamental decolonisation of the consultation and engagement process has yet to be really started – let alone achieved.


Collecting data from people is of course inextricably linked with measurement, for example, the number of complaints, percentage of positive feedback.  What do the numbers really tell us without context?


Some things to think about:


  1. Purpose and Intent: Why is my knowledge being sought?


The how am I going?/How do we rate?


  • I have encountered the smiley faced emoji to rate my experience in the public toilets in Changi Airport Singapore, various health providers and cafes; I can push a button to indicate misery to happiness in 3 easy stages.


  • How exactly these numbers will have any impact on what happens next I have yet to understand, other than to perhaps satisfy some reporting requirement for feedback. It is certainly a system very easily gamed, and one which provides no basis whatsoever for any contextual information.  I can push that button many times. As can the child being held by its mother as they leave the ladies convenience.


  • And who says my grumpy is the same as yours? Or my joy? Or that either is about the same things? Or reflects cultural differences of expectations? Or maybe that is not important.


  1. Why should I care

 Research commissioned by The Quality Council and undertaken by Cultural Imprints Ltd (Dr John Evans) in the 1990s, contrasted the cultural imprints of Australia (relational) and the US (transactional) among other countries.  This has been confirmed by later studies (See Simply the Best Workplaces in Australia redux https://researchers.mq.edu.au/en/publications/simply-the-best-workplaces-in-australia-redux)

  • The over-reliance on the ‘did you get what you wanted’ questions derive from a transactional culture – are they the most appropriate to our context?  If the current social media traffic related to the problems with our airlines are anything to go by, we are still a nation where the way we are treated – the quality of the relationship and how we are made to feel – is fundamental to our perception of the quality of the organisation and its products.


  • Likewise, the over simplified 3 piece emoji system gives no opportunity for context or nuance


  • From a relational perspective, what would cause me to care enough to answer the enormous number of opportunities to provide feedback. From the state of public toilets, the quality of health services, the purchase of a piece of technology, the food I ate or any other transaction?


  • What would cause me to care enough to take the time to share my experience and knowledge? Will it only be when I have decided I do not care if we ever engage with each other again?  Or when I am convinced you care enough to listen and do something with what I offer.


  1. Who listens, who makes “Sense” of the data, and who decides what implications and actions will follow.


Epistemic justice – what does it mean and why does it matter?


“Epistemic justice is about treating everyone’s word as bearing the same weight when considering someone is providing knowledge. It is about allowing people their own voice, not just as a passive contributor of stories or anecdotes but as an active agent in their interpretation.”  Cynefin.io. https://cynefin.io/wiki/Epistemic_justice

This seems to me a fundamental issue.
It goes to the role and mandate of researchers and facilitators.
And to the sovereignty of data and knowledge.
It goes to thinking differently about ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’.
It absolutely goes to context.
This and more to be considered next time.




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