Why the public sector must engage, involve the public and make them care

engagement in the public sector

When reading ‘Next steps on the NHS Five Year Forward View’ I admit I was a little underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, all the points are valid and the report gives a fair update on where we are and what needs to be tackled. But a lot of telling us what we already know. But it did get me thinking, as one point does seem to reoccur in this report and many others I’ve read recently. The need for engagement.

Engagement with patients, communities and staff. There seems to be a current trend for words such as ‘collaboration’, partnerships, ‘participation’ and ‘involvement’ but they all have a commonality. They can’t be achieved in isolation and they require engagement.

And whilst engagement is far from being a new concept, it’s an area that needs to be vastly improved within the public sector.

Engaging with the public

If you work in the public sector you will already know exactly what you deliver, how much delivery costs, you may have benchmarked your service against others, using local, regional or national comparisons. I’m certain you will also already have ideas for making the service better.

What the public sector needs to learn is to present that information in a way that the average person, unfamiliar with the language and systems of the public sector, can understand. Changes to the public sector demands you find ways to engage with people, to excite, engage and capture the enthusiasm of the public. It is not an easy task, but it is something thousands and thousands of people in businesses big and small do every single day.

So as austerity continues, and services must deliver more for less, there will continue to be increased emphasis on real improvement as well as real public engagement.

The public sector must now engage the public in a way that has not been required in the past – to involve them and make them care.

Here’s a few words of advice for engaging with the public…

Straight talking

It’s essential to be straight with people. Remember that most people you engage will want to believe you. After all, most of them will believe that they, personally, are ‘footing the bill’ for your service, so you need to be clear-sighted about what you deliver and how much it costs.

There is also a firm line to be drawn between having a clear message about what you do and ‘spin’. This latter term has fallen into much disrepute after spin got a little out of hand a few years ago. If you consider for one moment blurring the clarity of your message and being less than honest and direct, most people will spot that spin a mile off.

Be clear and consistent

Ensure your message is a single, clear and consistent message, particularly if you have a series of pitches that will be delivered in different circumstances. The core message must be consistent but tailored to suit each engagement group.

Build it and they will come? 

Sadly not. When it comes to engaging with the public, you will have to go to them. You cannot expect the public to come to you just because you would like them to. It is a good idea to look out for opportunities that provide a ready-made ‘platform’. Such opportunities will vary according to the sector and area you are working in, but think about public forums that are held regularly, perhaps third-sector engagement events and meetings, local neighbourhood meetings, Citizen’s Advice Bureau sessions, and corporate ‘meet the public’ and stakeholder events – in fact, all the sorts of occasions that might provide you with access to the people you want to involve. It’s also useful to develop a stakeholder map for your project.

Be all ears

When you engage with the public you will need to listen hard to the responses you receive. A polite or neutral response is the worst thing you can get when you tell people what your service delivers. Polite responses will take you nowhere. You ideally need people to ask questions of you, to be sufficiently engaged and interested to ask more. You need to hook people into what you do and deliver.

Be prepared for change 

There are some difficult choices to be made, and the comparisons you will need to make will change as the public sector landscape continues to change and evolve. Public expectation may change and that change will probably not be static. If you work in the public sector you will need to be brave, and will need to take the plunge and get the public’s feedback more often.
Mike Gill is partner at management consultancy Libre Advisory and author of best-selling book How to Survive Austerity.

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