‘It can be very patronising and very tokenistic’: how power sits at the centre of public engagement

By David Donaldson

Thursday July 9, 2020

Maria Katsonis
Maria Katsonis

Public engagement is a great way to access expertise held by the community, but is often frustrating for participants — especially those from diverse communities. Consider whether you’re really empowering people, says Maria Katsonis.

If you go to Google and search for public participation, “you’re going to see a delightful array of either circles or matrices or flow diagrams that distill engagement into a very simplistic set of steps — you do A, B, C, D, E, and voila, we have engagement”, says former senior Victorian public servant Maria Katsonis.

Usually left out of these neat summations is the important question of power.

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“Power is one of those issues I think that lies at the heart of engagement,” she told a recent event on diversity in public engagement at the Melbourne School of Government, where she is a public policy fellow.

“Who has the power? How much power, as someone who is engaging, are you actually giving over to the people you’re engaging with?”

The other big issue often unaddressed is trust.

“Because fundamentally engagement is an ongoing process. It’s about building trust and building relationships,” she says.

“We engage on behalf of the government. We are a mediator. And we can, as a mediator, either build trust in how we design and execute our engagement process, or we can erode trust.”

Part of building trust is demonstrating to the community they have been listened to.

“How often do you go back and communicate what we heard? That’s where you start to get cynicism from the community about participation — ‘we always give our ideas and we never hear back’.”

Katsonis has seen engagement from both sides of the fence, as a former public servant and as a person with lived experience of mental illness.

“I’ve seen how it can be done very effectively,” she says.

“I’ve also seen how it can be very patronising and very tokenistic.”

Accessing community expertise

It’s important to tease out what “engagement” means in different contexts.

Public participation is a spectrum of practices. While the term can mean asking the community for its views, in practice it’s often used when “what we’re doing is telling them, or informing them.”

It can be really valuable in accessing expertise not held by government itself — particularly for lived experience issues.

“Government doesn’t have all the knowledge, it doesn’t have the answers to every single solution. They say that the smartest people don’t work for you,” Katsonis notes.

“This is the the issue that I’m very passionate about: how do we access that experience and make use of that experience? Particularly when we’re talking about service delivery decisions, whether it be in mental health, whether it be justice, whether it be family violence — and value that just as much as we value the policy knowledge that’s brought to bear.”

As someone with a couple of decades’ experience in the bureaucracy, she’s able to operate effectively as a community representative in consultation processes — but also sees that many other people being engaged don’t have the skills to ensure they are listened to. Taking an educative approach, building those skills in the community, challenges the power dynamic between government and community, but empowers citizens.

“Do we give people the resources that they need to be able to participate effectively?” she asks.

This is especially important to make sure the loudest voices don’t dominate — so that diversity is represented in what is communicated, rather than just the invitation list.

Allowing all voices to be heard requires careful thinking about facilitation and process design.

“Don’t just hold workshops between nine to five because that’s when bureaucrats work,” she adds.

One successful approach she’s seen is the City of Melbourne’s “pop up consultations”.

“They went to multicultural communities, they went to playgrounds where mothers congregate. So it’s not just about ‘you come to us because that’s how we do it, we’re the important people’.”

Empowerment makes a big difference.

“If you look at how state government uses citizens’ juries, it really has just been a very fancy deliberative forum,” she argues.

“Local government citizens’ juries have been used very, very effectively, because essentially they have put decision making power in the hands of participants.”

Are we really helping?

One question to ask is whether increasing diversity in engagement is leading to meaningful change.

Ruth DeSouza
Ruth DeSouza

“We assume that if we just add some extra bodies — we just add the neuro-diverse person, we add the person with a disability, we add non-cisgendered, or creatively abled people, that that somehow will transform the organisation,” says Ruth DeSouza, honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne Centre for Digital Transformation of Health.

“What I struggle with is that fundamentally the container within which the organisation sits remains unchanged, so we’re just adding people.”

Another way to approach the situation is to ask “who are we centring?” says DeSouza.

“In Aotearoa, I was on the board of a health funding body that was responsible for an annual $1 billion budget where we had to allocate money. One of the things that sat at the centre of all our decision making was we’d say, okay, who are the most disadvantaged people in our community?”

It was clear in that community that the people who experienced most disadvantage were Maori and Pasifika, so in each decision the board made, they would actively consider whether it would be good for Maori and Pasifika people.

“Because then that rising tide will lift all the boats. If we’ve got them at the centre of what we’re doing, then it will have benefits for people who are more resourced.”

DeSouza has also spent some time thinking about what it means to help. She cites the Kony 2012 campaign to arrest Joseph Kony, the leader of a guerrilla group that used child soldiers. While it briefly went viral in western countries, it appears to have had little impact on the people it was intended to help.

“How do we know that something is actually helpful?” DeSouza asks.

“How do we know that whatever solution we’re going to propose is actually going to be relevant, appropriate, workable, usable? And this is particularly in the context of lived experiences.”

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