Engagement capable organisations – music to our ears!

I’ve spent the past 15 years literally obsessed with stakeholder engagement. First in the context of local and state government and now in the public health space. Naturally I jumped at the chance at CHF’s Shifting Gears summit to explore what the term ‘engagement capable organisation’ means for me by being on a panel of consumers considering engagement capable organisations.

There are three key things I’d like to touch on when it comes to engagement capable organisations:

  1. Being able to handle a plot twist.
  2. Having a solid foundation.
  3. Following a compass, not a map.

So why do I start with being able to handle a plot twist? In website design, a way to check how well a site works is to put it under pressure – what’s known as a ‘spike test’. I believe that COVID-19, and the restrictions we experienced (in Victoria at least) provided a huge spike test to our health consumer engagement ecosystem. I also believe it’s been a spike test that in general, saw our ecosystem fail.

We know in general, when the COVID pandemic began, there was a knee jerk reaction from many organisations – they adopted a very, very ‘command and control, top down’ way of doing business.

Many places, including where I work, immediately ceased face-to-face meetings and volunteer programs, and for a hot minute it looked like GAME OVER for consumer engagement in public health. Who knew that our engagement ecosystem was like a Jenga tower, and taking out face to face meetings would cause the whole tower to tumble so quickly?

…the biggest plot twist of all time…

It felt a bit dire but I did have faith that where I work, there’s genuine strategic and cultural commitment to elevating the voices and contributions of people with lived experience.

I’m on-staff consumer advisor at Safer Care Victoria and have been for just over three years although I can honestly say that when COVID hit, it felt like the biggest plot twist of all time, and not in a cool way.

What did happen quickly for us was that a State-wide Clinical Leadership group was established to focus on COVID response and planning. Because it’s ‘business as usual’ for us, as a health consumer leader, I was invited to join those senior clinical leaders at that virtual table.

Even in a pandemic, we have strategic and business plans, policies, guidelines and an executive leadership team that make it our ‘business as usual’ to include the voices of lived experience. These elements are critical for the authorising environment needed for engagement capable organisations.

My first order of business was to propose, and have quickly endorsed, a lived experience consumer group working as part of the COVID response structure, parallel to clinical working groups.

Our lived experience members worked independently to identify and escalate COVID-19 issues of concern. We also partnered with clinical working groups that were generating clinical guidance – and spent a fair bit of time making pointy recommendations about website COVID content!

I feel like our organisation could handle this plot twist because we had strategic and operational infrastructure that meant we could quickly recruit, convene and conduct a group like this, virtually.

So what about solid foundations? At Safer Care Victoria, we have a foundational framework in our Partnering in Healthcare framework. Having an authorising environment is one element, but having a foundational framework creates a kind of ‘force function’ that means being engagement capable isn’t a nice to have, or a lucky accident.

… an unplanned spike test like COVID-19…

We have a reference point for when there’s an unplanned spike test like COVID-19, and a reference point to remind staff and key partners that this is how we do things.

What did I mean by ‘follow a compass, not a map’? When I say this, I mean that engagement is as much about adaptive capacity as it is the tools and methods we use. I mentioned at the start that consumer engagement felt like a Jenga tower gone wrong when we couldn’t have face to face activities.

In the months that followed that initial ‘engagement ecosystem collapse’ we saw organisations who were able to quickly adapt their engagement approaches.

I believe those organisations are the ones who focus on the WHY not the WHAT. They’re genuinely in touch with the overall direction, rather than the specific route. All about the compass, not the map.

Finally, in the lead up to the conference, I shared a Spotify ‘mix tape’. You can click here to see the playlist, or here to see what I had to say about the songs on Twitter. This was a light-hearted way to touch on what I think are a few critical principles to consider when an organisation is assessing where they might need to ‘do the work’ to become or improve their engagement capability.

With the theme songs in mind, I challenge you to think about the following:

Power – being real about the fact that power sharing sits at the heart of all engagement. What decisions are getting made, and who gets to make them?

Honesty/authenticity – before, during and after engagement – honour the relationships by being real about what level of engagement you’ll operate at. If you haven’t worked in the space before, google ‘IAP2 participation framework’ as a starting point.

Adequate resourcing – making sure that consumer engagement isn’t all about discretionary effort and goodwill. What’s your budget? Think about time, money and how effective resourcing supports inclusion and equitable access to consumers that reflect and align with community diversity.

Closing the loop – doing evaluations and sharing them and remembering to reflect on processes and outcomes with everyone who’s been involved.

In closing, the great news is that no-one needs to start ‘from scratch’ when it comes to improving engagement capability. There are many countries, organisations and practitioners with incredibly mature and robust frameworks, policies and guidelines – all openly and easily available for those who genuinely want to be engagement capable.

About the author

Portrait of the authorBelinda MacLeod-Smith is Improvement Partner at Safer Care Victoria’s ‘Consumers as Partners’ Branch. She joined as their on-staff consumer representative in 2017. With a firm commitment to co-design principles, Belinda played a key role in developing SCV’s Partnering in Healthcare Framework, Victoria’s flagship consumer partnership policy.  Belinda continues to provide co-design, engagement, and collaboration advice to both SCV and Department of Health staff on a wide range of projects.