Truly inclusive engagement – beyond the ‘hard to reach’

In reading many Council’s recommendations for engaging with hard to reach groups, I often wonder if we have missed the point.  What about those who have been ‘reached’ but feel unable, or are unable, to comment? 

Sometimes people feel unable because the confidence required to voice an opinion – particularly a contrary one – can be underestimated.   Fans of Radio 4’s The Archers will have noted the storyline about proposals for a residential development in the mythical rural setting.  The Parish Council meeting at which it was discussed was predictably negative with platitudes from the great and the good of Ambridge about ‘undesirables’ taking up residence in the proposed affordable housing.  However, the writers included a great scene (which sadly seldom happens in real life) where longstanding resident Emma Grundy delivers a feisty retort to the naysayers about already working 3 jobs to support her family and home ownership in her home village being nothing more than a pipedream.   The line “so I’m good enough to work here, but not good enough to live here” took courage and confidence and one she later admits left her shaking as she steeled her nerve against the opponents (which included her boss). 

Civic engagement is incredibly low in certain areas and research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that 36% of those on low incomes like Emma Grundy, feel they have no control over their housing situation.  When you are faced with a belief that ‘it doesn’t matter what I say, the ‘establishment’ will make it happen/not happen anyway’ encouraging and empowering people to participate in decisions can be an uphill battle. 

But sadly, it’s not just those who feel unable to make a comment, there are also those who are unable due to practical barriers.  Making literature available in different languages, large print or audio etc. often only happens by request and should be included more routinely, but we also need to be aware of barriers created by even the best of intentions. 

I recently ran a user group workshop for a major infrastructure project.  One participant - with decades of practical experience in the area we were examining - was highly vocal during the debates but became withdrawn when asked to write recommendations on an annotated drawing.  I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t realise until he verbally gave me his suggestions after the others had left, that he was highly dyslexic and didn’t want to write anything in public – something that never occurred to me when I designed the workshop.

Truly inclusive consultation will only come with improved civic engagement, and will only come when we are willing to place ourselves in the shoes of others and be adaptive and flexible in the techniques we use.   

This article was written by Sereena Davey, Associate Director at MPC.