A 2022 Engagement Forecast…looking back to look ahead

by Richard Delaney, President and Principal, Collaborative Decision-Making

As we collectively turn the page to a new year, I think many among us are happy to see it go in hopes of a better one to come. From my perspective, the year has not been terrible, neither personally nor professionally. Our family (including the team at DELANEY co) is healthy and expanding their horizons every day. These people are my treasures, along with the many dedicated professionals we are privileged to call clients. Fortunately, everyone in my little circle is healthy and doing well.

This coming year will be quite a different year for me. After about 30 years in the engagement field, more than 25 leading my own company, I will be stepping back, proud to support daughter Jessica who will step up to lead the consulting practice and overall direction of the company. I will continue to do some training, develop new training products and engagement tools, plus work behind the scenes with several of my long-term clients whose company I enjoy and of whose work I am proud. This will give me time to research, write and focus on challenges facing our fragile democracy that many of us seem to be taking for granted these days.

So, instead of Jessica who usually does this, I am doing the “year in review and forecast” using my 30-some years of watching the profession to crystal ball what is ahead, based on the year and years past.

This past year has seen remarkable gains in the field of engagement. It has brought an incredible array of new online tools, expanded broadband and coverage, plus provided better access for non-habitual internet user. This means, more than ever before, we are able to connect the voices, fears and aspirations of impacted parties to decision makers. I believe this expanding trend will continue, and engagement professionals should continue to invest in online engagement infrastructure and efforts.

I see another major win as more and more clients build internal engagement capacity. Linked to ease of access afforded by the move to virtual training, our training practice has helped more engagement professionals than ever before enhance their abilities.

There has also been a drive to better incorporate and report on participant process-based evaluations – that is, the extent to which those engaged access the process to discuss decision aspects important to them. Collecting data and reporting on the effectiveness of processes is a first step. Now, we need to use results-based evaluations to close the loop with impacted parties, deepen that trust relationship and stand accountable for how input, in some cases gut-wrenching and tearful, was used   …   or why not.

I also see and embrace greater expectations from clients in terms of connecting with impacted parties, as opposed to the “general public”. And this isn’t just organized groups like community or business group leaders. We are having to dig deep to demonstrate that individuals who will benefit, or not, from the pending decision have been meaningfully engaged. This speaks directly to the need for communication and recruitment innovations that are timely and fun. At DELANEY we have always said the keys to success are: Go to where people are – Have fun – Bring food.  We can do all of this even in an online world with some creativity.  Digital coffee cards!

These trends set up our profession for increased success, where success is better decisions because they include the voices of those impacted.

There have also been colossal engagement failures this past year.

For example, 2021 saw a hastily organized and long overdue National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This was a 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendation. On 30 September 2021, orange-clad rally participants across the country, including many politicians, called for greater justice and dignity for Indigenous peoples. Mere weeks later, however, the federal and different provincial jurisdictions were directing the RCMP to forcibly remove Indigenous “land defenders” from their traditional and unceded territories, throwing them in jail to make way for resource development. Governments of every order and stripe have been engaging with Indigenous peoples for literally decades to resolve long-standing issues of injustice. These engagements have generated countless agreements and promises, but virtually nothing has changed.

Another disturbing trend resolves around decision-maker hosted engagements that are organized and facilitated by non-engagement professionals. By this I mean architects, engineers, planners, biologists, and public relations specialists, for example, conducting engagements as both the subject matter expert and the engagement host. As much as it is desirable for the decision maker to build trust-based relationships with their interested and affected parties, engagement discussions need to address the needs of all parties, not just the decision maker, to be authentic. This requires a skilled engagement professional, who may be an SME who identifies as the neutral facilitator, to create and hold space for these conversations. It goes to transparency, neutrality and, frankly, honesty. The Certified Public Participation Professional designation is the most effective means to achieve that goal.

These concerns point to one imperative for internal and external (consultant) engagement professionals. Beyond designation, we need to outline clear expectations for authentic engagement – to work with the decision maker to hammer out a meaningful scope of engagement, both for them and impacted parties, then holding them to their word. It also means committing to, and practising, our IAF and IAP2 professional values. At the end of the day, truth and accountability are the bedrock of our craft. We must weave these essential values into engagement strategy, communications and process, to strengthen public confidence in the work we do.

Lastly, as a BC resident, it would be an incredible oversight to not mention the climate crisis. In 2021, the changing climate generated “heat domes” and “atmospheric rivers” that created record wildfires, floods, and landslides. These events destroyed vast swaths of the natural environment, billions in infrastructure and the lives of tens of thousands British Columbians, many of whom are still homeless. As a group, we must use our skills as paid professionals and volunteers to help facilitate difficult conversations to bring about the individual and collective changes and sacrifices needed to wrestle this monster to the ground.

As mentioned earlier, I’m not in the company day-to-day, but I’m still here if you’d like to chat or kick some ideas around. All the very best for a healthy and productive 2022 – rmd