Around this time last year, I wrote an outlook for 2016 around engagement for our planet, country and home. Click here to read that post.
This year’s engagement forecast for 2017 focuses on three trends we see for the year ahead for communications, engagement and dialogue.
#1 – Oversimplification of Complex Issues
The foundation of any meaningful engagement is information and clear communication of the facts. Increasingly, however, there is a move to oversimplify the facts of a project, problem or opportunity. It could be, in part, the Trump effect. It could be because we are in the post-truth era. Or still, it could be that we’ve become accustomed to consuming tweets rather than thoughtful, balanced and, gasp, true journalism.
The result is that politicians, decision makers and regular citizens can cast the problem of, for example, illegal migrants, and the solution is a wall. Cast the project as a pipeline, and the opportunity is jobs. Cast the problem as fentanyl, and the solution is its antidote Naloxone.
The reality, of course, is that illegal immigration requires a much more balanced approach than a wall; pipelines can provide many short-term jobs, but what is required is a clear understanding of the greenhouse gas emissions they facilitate, environmental risks posed and diverted investment into greener industries. And the fentanyl crisis, which is affecting Canadians coast-to-coast, but with particularly dramatic results just a stone’s throw from our office and my home in Vancouver, requires a serious look at how our country supports individuals and their families when it comes to mental health and substance use.
Nothing is simple. There are no silver bullets, and yet decision makers often frame the issues, projects, problems or opportunities as being very straightforward.
So, in 2017 – more than ever – it will be important to be an effective communicator before an engagement process begins. Providing clear, fact-based information has never been more important, nor more challenging. Stay tuned to the D+A blog for an upcoming three-part series on communicating in the post-truth era.
#2 – Skepticism is Universal
The only demographic that is skeptical is every demographic.
If you need proof, I dare you to find someone who believes the federal government’s online survey on electoral reform is a transparent, well-developed survey. The survey, available here, was compared in the House of Commons to an online dating survey designed by Fidel Castro. Members of the opposition parties, academia, the media and even those individual Canadians who had been involved previously in the government’s outreach initiatives on electoral reform question the surveys design, results, and suggest it is all leading to a Liberal-preferred result.
This would have been a hard survey to ever get right because everyone is skeptical of the following:
- The technique – why a survey?
- The overall approach – so this is all leading to a referendum on electoral reform?
- The results – how do values align with preferred electoral system?
There are so many skeptics, that a number of alternative surveys quickly popped up. Click here to provide your opinion of online voting vs murderous clowns.
So, in 2017, in order to manage skepticism, you need to plan for it. You need to:
- Communicate meaningfully and transparently about the decision (re: trend #1).
- Communicate on the process of engagement and how input will be used.
- Communicate the givens and non-negotiables.
In order to truly manage skepticism, decision makers also must stop leading stakeholders/people on. For example, if there is input provided that cannot be used, or ideas that are not viable, the decision maker needs to be explicit in communicating the givens and why the input or ideas cannot/will not be used.
#3 – Data + Decision Making
80% of statistics are made up… I made that up.
Increasingly, decision makers and those who support them want data to substantiate their decision. They want to know that 67% of respondents highly or moderately support their initiative.
Engagement can provide some compelling insights into a decision. It can tap into what is important for people in the decision, what their hopes are for an outcome, what they are afraid of or hoping to avoid.
This information sometimes can be communicated in terms of quantitative data. That’s why surveys are often used, as they provide what appears to be a straightforward analysis of results. More often, it is qualitative data that provides contextual insights into a decision. This resides in the transcriptions from one-on-one interviews, focus groups, deliberative dialogue notes and other forms of input.
So, in 2017, we see an increasing demand for data to support decision making, but with a strong preference for quantitative data – and we see that as a potential risk.
Three questions we ask our clients early in the engagement planning phase are:
- What does the engagement summary report look like?
- What information do you need to make a decision?
- Do you need to know what the most popular opinion/option is?
Sometimes, the quest for solid quantitative data can hinder the development of an engagement plan. If it’s just about getting “the numbers”, then we often ask: is this public opinion research? That can be a good thing to do, but it’s not engagement.
In 2017, I believe convening and facilitating respectful and inclusive dialogue will be more important than ever – but it may also be harder than ever. The reality is that when it’s hard, it’s often most needed.
Human nature seems to revert rather quickly to “us and them”, and zero-sum game, and if those dynamics exist internationally and nationally, it can become rather easy to slip into those habits at a community, organizational or even interpersonal level. That would be a bad habit to develop.
I believe the antidote is dialogue and transparent, meaningful engagement, because every time we come together to think and decide, we are stronger and we build something that will last.