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Staying engaged when your agency is restructured (again)

I hear a common refrain from exhausted public servants …

“Here we go again! A new government, a new name for the agency, a new structure, another amalgamation/deamalgamation. This happens every time. The community has no idea who we are. How are we meant to keep people engaged when they don’t know who their dealing with, and half the time, neither do we?”

I feel their pain.

In 2004 I was working with the NSW Department of Planning. We’d been rolling out the “Planning NSW” brand for several years, working hard to be an enabling agency rather than a regulatory one. Things were humming along nicely. Then one day, everything changed. We came to work to discover that the entire department was to be amalgamated with the Department of Land and Water Conservation and parts of the Department of Transport, to create a monster called the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources. It was more than a mouthful. It’s fair to say that there were no winners that day. Of course DIPNR is now long gone, replaced by, wait for it, the Department of Planning within a few short years.

Along with all of the usual internal staff morale issues that come from confusion, dislocation and fear of change, as a very small agency, we felt very strongly that we had lost our identity. That identity was wrapped up in the contemporary Planning NSW brand. Our new name alone made it feel like we were going backwards in time to a bygone era of beige short-sleeved shirts, brown shorts, long socks and sandals.

The communities we dealt with on a daily basis were, quite naturally, even more confused. Keeping track of who was who in the zoo was, understandably, a little mind-boggling. As if dealing with government isn’t difficult enough for the everyday citizen. Continuous name and structural changes make for a maze with many dead ends.

There are steps we can take to minimise the impact of structural changes on the community, but those steps need to be taken early in anticipation of the next restructure. It requires that departmental staff acknowledge the inevitability of change.

It’s not hard to mount an argument that change is inevitable. As we look at the major restructures about to be rolled out in Victoria just four years after the last set of major changes, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that all administrative structures are temporary, no matter how much time and energy and commitment is invested in the new brand.

I’m not writing this to call for an end to restructures. That would clearly be futile. I do, however, think it’s time we planned our community interactions to recognise the inevitability of these changes.

Traditional face-to-face engagement processes are largely project based and the impact on the community is limited to some bewilderment at the new logos, and muttering about the cost. There may also be a knock on impact if there are major staff changes, if there is a hiatus in progress, or if the new department has changed priorities.

However, online community engagement is quite different and the lost opportunities here are potentially much greater.

Best practice in online participation sees community being built around a website and/or in a social network. Regular engagement on a range of related issues on a platform demonstrates a commitment to engage with the community and also makes it much easier and more affordable to reach a strong sample of interested community members.

“It’s the issue that matters, so don’t align engagement efforts with administrative structures.”

A new department structure typically means new sites, new URLs and, for a while at least, the community is dispersed. If you’ve built up a database of thousands of willing participants to engage with the Department of Primary Industries, how do you divvy those people up when you split into the Departments of Fisheries, Agriculture, Mining and Forestry? The reverse issue could be equally relevant if the new entity is a mega department covering all sorts of issues that the existing community may not be interested in.

You don’t have permission to migrate people to a new site and inevitably your community will dwindle as the result of a change, even if the new entity is quick to implement consistent online engagement methodologies, which is rarely the case in practice.

Here’s a simple solution — one that can be implemented now to protect your community from future restructures.

Let’s face it, the community doesn’t actually care, by and large, which department they are talking to. It’s the issue that matters, so don’t align engagement efforts with administrative structures. Instead, align your engagement, and specifically online engagement efforts, with functions that you know will continue to exist regardless of the brand applied to them or the structure of their delivery in future governments.

If you are, for example, a state government department with responsibility for the environment, heritage, and primary industries, then establish an online engagement portal for each of these functions. Perhaps break them down further. If the needs of an audience for the mining element of your portfolio differs from that of the fisheries functions then give them discrete online portals for engagement.

The test of how far to disaggregate your audience should be all about the community of interest, not about the department’s desire to project its brand.

Communities of interest are important because very few people want to have a say on everything. We all have our interests and passions. For local government, the community passion might well be the local area and as such a single portal for diverse issues works well. This is very unlikely to be the case at the state or national government level where the communities of interest will coalesce around issues.

If brand consistency is a critical issue, there is no harm in having a central departmental space that lists all the department’s engagement efforts (NSW has a great portal which does just this at). Each site can also carry the department branding and logo (these elements can be changed later if need be). What is important is the way in which issues are aggregated, keeping relevant communities of interest together.

This may entail a small additional cost, but the benefit will be that your community is future proofed. You can build community around your engagement platform confident that the efforts you are making will not be undone by the next restructure — that one you are pretty sure is just around the corner.

Author Bio

Matthew Crozier

Matthew Crozier is a co-founder and CEO of Bang the Table, a consultancy in community digital engagement. He's a former policy worker in the public service.