Engagement Forecast 2021

by Jessica Delaney, Principal, Engagement + Strategic Communications

Every year, we do an engagement outlook or forecast looking to see what trends the year ahead might hold from an engagement perspective. Last year we identified fiscal restraint, big conversations and engagement on strategy…we didn’t see COVID-19 coming, but fair to say it did lead to fiscal restraint and more than a few big conversations.

Looking ahead to 2021, it’s difficult to know how things will shape up, but here are three insights we are considering:

  1. Online Engagement: Sure to be a key approach to engagement in 2021 is a focus on online, socially distanced engagement. While 2020 saw its fair share of Zoom-based open houses and Teams-based virtual focus groups, I believe the focus in 2021 will be on self-directed engagement that is not time-bound. For example, I see surveys, online workbooks, and open comments on social media being more of a focus in 2021. People are busy, tired, and distracted and our experience in 2020 was that committing a specific session at a particular time and date is challenging for many. This is largely reflective of the challenge the pandemic presents with our ability to plan at all. What might sound like a good idea 10 days out, all of a sudden is impossible if kids aren’t in school, family is sick, or if our work circumstances change. It’s not that people don’t want to engage; I believe more than ever people want to engage, but they want to do it at a time that works for them and is not confined to a particular meeting.
  2. Deliberation will be challenging: Deliberation is about thinking deeply. It’s not just a matter of choosing between options, but about unpacking and rethinking our assumptions and notions of how things “ought” to be. This is really hard to do virtually, but not impossible. What is required for virtual deliberation is a well facilitated approach and flexibility, particularly with time. Deliberating virtually will likely take more time and require strong leadership.
  3. Beyond lip service – Equity: While we might all be in this pandemic together, we are experiencing it very differently. For some the pandemic has meant eating out less, investing in themselves or re-focussing on their priorities while for others it has meant the loss of a loved one, financial hardship and panic attacks. Authentic engagement requires that proponents and sponsors of public processes work to bring those impacted by a pending decision into the engagement in ways that are meaningful to them. This might mean that translators or interpreters are hired, more time is given, people are interviewed one-on-one, or that honorariums are paid for their participation. The pandemic has impacted some people, groups and communities more than others, and as public participation professionals we need to recognize that equity isn’t just a pretty word. Bringing equity to process is often challenging, takes time and money and will, but if a process isn’t going to engage those impacted, then why bother?

For the Delaney team, we are grateful for what we have learned, and relearned, in 2020, and look forward to 2021 as a time to continue to learn, grow, serve our clients and support meaningful engagement which helps us move forward together.