Sweet choices in community and stakeholder engagement.

Coffee and ice cream are a delicious blend. Add a dash of liqueur and that’s my definition of dessert decadence.

The three simple ingredients of an affogato that I’ve experienced in so many ways.

It can be served blended in glass. That’s disappointing. Where’s the fun?

Or served in a bowl, with the ice cream almost completely melted in a pool of coffee. They forgot the cold glass and the liqueur.

Sometimes, the three ingredients are presented on a cool-looking wooden tray. I’m in complete control. The measures are up to me.

But what if I don’t know what to do with it? I look around the table in a mild panic. Nobody else at the table has this dessert. I’ll have to wing it and hope I don’t embarrass myself.

What does dessert have to do with collaboration with community or stakeholders? It proved a great recipe for a deep conversation with a group recently.

It’s fair to say that this group of active stakeholders and community members were tipping on the edge of ‘consultation fatigue’. I had to come up with something fresh. The future of their city might depend on it.

I asked them to recall their previous experiences of ‘engagement’ with a government agency or organisation. But rather than discuss the rather dry IAP2 Engagement Spectrum (which is fine for engagement around planning and infrastructure decisions, but less helpful for other types of engagement), I asked them imagine the spectrum as a ‘dessert’. It looks something like this:

dessert quadrant_small.jpg

At one end of the spectrum, people are told what they’re having for dessert. No choice. At the other end, they get to create their own - “Here’s the kitchen – I look forward to seeing what you create.”

Rather than describe processes and activities, I asked them what it felt like.

Did the menu feel ‘set’ or was it ‘a la carte’? What felt right? Were they told that they were going to get apple tart? Or were they shown a dessert tray and asked what they preferred?

Perhaps they were invited to make themselves at home in the kitchen, given a budget to spend, the utensils they needed and an enthusiastic apprentice pastry chef to help them whip up something spectacular.

Hats off to Patricia Van Gorp of Beacon Associates who came up with this analogy in 2007*. It’s helped trigger deep conversations with communities, stakeholders, technical experts and sponsoring organisations about degrees of control and what’s appropriate for the issue at hand – is it straightforward? Is it tricky? Does it evoke high emotions? It helps to tease out what information might be needed at each level, expectations and what promises can be made to communities.

The response of the last group I used it with was visceral. People remembered how being ‘informed’ felt and if that matched the reason they were being ‘engaged’.

This group got greater clarity around the ‘purpose’ of engagement. They saw that not everything needs a citizen’s jury, for example. And some things were too complex for a set menu.

As they recounted their stories of the ‘dessert menu’ the energy in the room lifted. We’d moved from ‘theory’ and ‘processes’ to ‘experience. It meant that people seemed to allow just that split second more to listen to each other, rather than jump in and fill the space.

Some extended the metaphor. From the more cynical, ‘What if I don’t want dessert?’ to the one who begged organisations not to give him a ‘deconstructed dessert’.

 “I get presented with a whole lot of different separate ingredients.



Chocolate chips.

A delicate biscuit.

I’ve got no idea what to do with them!”

A bit like the affogato experience for someone who’d never seen one before. With no information on what to do, you’re likely to be embarrassed, may not ask for help and probably will never order it again.

His example prompted a great discussion about what information people need to engage meaningfully.

I know I’ve been guilty of starting with a de-constructed dessert in the past. No wonder there’s been bewilderment.

Engagement is an all-encompassing word for a lot of different experiences. For customers, staff, stakeholders, communities and partners. I think the dessert metaphor is a really effective way to demystify it and get beyond the jargon.

In our efforts to build trust with community and stakeholders, it might be helpful to ask where we are on the ‘dessert’ spectrum.

Is our menu set or a la carte? Does that match the purpose of the engagement or the complexity of the issue?

What metaphors do you use? I’d love to know. Like and comment below.

*I’ve not been able to track it down online. Let me know if you find it.

IAP2 Spectrum as Dessert, Source:  Patricia Van Gorp of Beacon Associates  2007

IAP2 Spectrum as Dessert, Source: Patricia Van Gorp of Beacon Associates 2007