Questions change everything in community engagement | Max Hardy | TEDxStKilda

the last 20 years I've worked as a community engagement practitioner you probably don't know what that is most of you don't don't worry you're not alone I remember many years ago getting a phone call a very worried parent and I answered the phone she said mr. Hardy I said yes she said your Lenore's father I said yes she said I'm very worried your daughter came to our place she came to my daughter's birthday party yesterday and all the kids knew what their parents did except your daughter struggled so at this point I was thinking that she reckoned I was a drug dealer so I said would you like me to try and explain what I do she said yes I said right okay doesn't notice so the next five minutes or so it really did my best to explain what I did for a living and there was just silence on the other end of the phone and I said has that helped at all she said yes it has helped a great deal thank you I said great so you know what I'm doing she said no but now I know why your daughter couldn't explain it so community engagement is known by a number of terms that may be familiar or not familiar to like community consultation public participation citizen engagement public involvement any of those terms and generally it's understood or defined as the process for involving the community in conversations about decisions that interest them or affect them often community engagement is initiated by government I believe the community engagement can do a lot more than just influence decisions it has the potential to strengthen democracy it has the ability to also build community build connections and do a whole lot more than just provide some input to decisions and one of the things that's really concerned me for many years about the practice is that hasn't for fear that promise and one of the reasons for that is that government entities usually ask really ordinary questions of their community and they expect very little of their community I do remember on one occasion 1996 this is a long time ago now but engineers were really concerned about a problem with the pipeline it was a pipeline that ran a hundred kilometres from over on them near the Blue Mountains all the way to a reservoir in Glen Davis it's sort of a long way from anywhere but it's in the middle of the Cape Verde Valley which is just about as big as the Grand Canyon anyway in the 1930s they built a shale oil refinery there and in order to have that shale oil refinery operate they need a border so they'd built this massive pipeline from oberon Dam to Glen Davis it was decommissioned in the 1950s because it wasn't financially viable so the town then that was quite vibrant shrunk and become a ghost town but unusual for a ghost town it had running town water but I very concerned when when they measured the water flowing from the top of the escarpment down to the bottom that thousands and thousands of litres of water were being lost it was going to cost about five million dollars to replace that pipeline and that didn't stack up commercially when you only had 40 permanent residents in the town so government came up with a plan and the plan was to disconnect the water supply the pipeline and to give people water tanks they knew they had to engage the community in a conversation about it but engage them about what the officers of this government authority was so nervous about going there they would find a way of delaying taking any action in the hope that they could get transferred into another job and this happened for about four years until someone had this great idea of getting a consultant to do the job for them anyway they found luckily for them they found a naive young consultant who was pretty desperate to get some work done luckily for me I was that consultant so that was that was interesting and I thought well okay the first thing I need to do is I need to I need to approach the progress Association and ask them whether it'd be okay if we use their halt for a few meetings so I'm going to rang up and ask him he said it might be possible but he asked me a much more powerful question and the question he asked me was will you be bringing your bulletproof vests at that point I knew why they delayed so long to actually go and talk to this community and also why they referred to it as deliverance country and I want to return to a story a bit later on to tell you what actually happened there our questions for community engagement are often very very ordinary and for that reason the processes are fairly bumpy and communities are often marketed to solutions are marketed and I was really impressed by the work of David Cooper Oda and some things that he said and he said our questions are faithful we live in the world that our questions create and I think that's quite significant and quite profound because in my experience the questions we ask around community engagement are faithful they have the power to damage and polarize and I also have the ability potentially to transform and connect and deliver really smart outcomes one was there was actually a Victorian council had an issue with large trees that were jacking up pavers in the main street and a lot of people had difficulty getting around in that street but especially people in wheelchairs and who had mobility challenges so the disability access committee had been lobbying council for years to get this fixed in their wisdom counsel flicked it to their public work section and asked them to come with a solution which they did they're going to pull out these trees that were over a hundred years old they were going to relay the pavers flatten them out beautifully and replace those trees with other trees with less aggressive rootstocks and the question they went to the community was do you reckon this will help you get around the street okay so not only was there public reaction and outrage most troubling of all is that people with disabilities on that access committee started getting hate mail and people were blaming them for wanting to pull the trees out it took them a while to take stock and to realize that this wasn't going to work terribly well it was actually doing damage eventually they came up with a much better question with a bit of help and that was how can everybody get around and enjoy this street how simple instead of trying to sell a solution they invited the community to be part of a creative process to solve the puzzle how can we do this and they did it they work together beautifully they come up with a solution with the help of some technical experts and they sort of had a nice pathway on the other side of the road they kept the trees actually made beautiful gardens there they had these access crossings they turned up two-way street into a one-way street and guess what the solution was less than half the price of council's original solution so I've got another question that I thought was pretty ordinary one when we were pulled in to work with a national parks and Wildlife Service and they wanted to go to the community with a question because they were being lobbied by conservationists and by recreation enthusiasts and what they said to this National Parks and Wildlife Service is you need to resolve this what our national parks are primarily for and they wanted to go with the question of what our national parks meant for primarily is it for conservation or for recreation that is an excellent question if you want to start a brawl that is how you polarize a community and so fortunately it was intercepted before it went public and they had had a go and come up with a better question the next one was slightly better it was how do we balance the needs of recreation and conservation in our national parks that was a bit better the problem being that it assumes that the more you have of one the less you have of the other which also makes it a stupid question and so in the end a much better question was arrived at how do we maximize enjoyment of national parks and improve its environmental value or improve conservation how do we get both now that was a question worth asking and you'll know from a number of solutions in national parks that boardwalks mean you can actually enjoy the national park much more and you do less damage to the to the environment because you're not walking on the earth so ask about a question a community comes together questions that we ask are often not terribly well thought through and so I've got this formula that I use and I had this in the back of my head all the time about what we need is a great question genuine curiosity high expectations and a diverse community and that will lead to healthier conversations and smarter more enduring solutions for me that's what it's about so we need to put more thought into questions Einstein said something that was actually quite useful about questions and that was he said if I had 60 minutes to save the planet I'd take 55 minutes trying to generate the right question because once I worked out the question I could find the solution in five minutes there's something about community engagement that we kind of don't spend a real lot of time wondering what is the question we are asking people to resolve this affects community engagement a great deal but it also affects us in every realm of life what are the questions we're asking of people and what impact will those questions have and I think that if we don't believe that people can rise to the occasion we think that people are so stuck in their point of view that they're incredibly selfish that they're opinionated that they're stupid then why would you engage a community you wouldn't the best you can do is try and actually tell them what's good for them and persuade them that you know what's good for them it doesn't work but if that's the attitude then that's likely to be what happens that we market the solution and of course that is what happened at Glenn Davis so let's return to the story of Glenn Davis because people didn't believe that the pipeline was falling to bits actually said you know what we just think government doesn't care about us anymore hearing Glenn Davis and so they were so mistrustful of the engineers report about the loss of water that we had a tour of the pipeline and we piled into two Land Rovers Land Cruisers and that group consisted of some community members and some engineers and public servants and me and the maintenance fellow who actually looked after the pipeline so we did the trip over the terrain we checked out a number of points along the pipeline and lo and behold they said they discovered that the pipeline was in pretty good condition and they'll kind of really confuse us in the pipeline seems to be fine it seems like all this stuff the community was saying about the pipeline being okay was true but there was a problem what was happening with all this water loss and a woman looked at me and she said whiskey I said what whiskey I heard a rumor of a fellow who was illegally tapping into the pipeline to grow crops from which he made whiskey and it was investigated and it was absolutely true so here we were trying to sell a solution to a problem that didn't exist because we're trying to work on the wrong problem so after a bit of investigation we found out that was true the government authority had developed a memorandum of understanding with the community the problem was solved water is still running which is kind of cool and at the end of that field trip we ended up back in the community hall where we felt that our lives were under some sort of threat and the president of the association opened the fridge and invited us to drink beer with him so here's a picture of us at the end of our trip feeling a lot happier then and it was kind of a happy ending but of course every time I share this story someone will say oh yeah but what would happen if the pipeline was falling to bits wouldn't have been any happy ending then true but I find that people are able to move on and think creatively about things or much it will easily accept hard decisions if they know why they're being made the other thing that happened is when we had those meetings in the hall is a heathered gentleman who's about 85 who said do you know what I might be the oldest person here in the room and I was here before that shale oil refinery was built and we used to walk up into the foothills and we used to get some spring water out of from the foothills and there was enough water there for our population of 30 or 40 roughly what we are now he said but I bet your engineers check that out and it's not viable for some reason the engineers went bright-red didn't know anything about it so is it amazing we sort of think our community sometimes is a problem to be solved rather than an asset to utilize so I want to leave you with some questions one question is what would happen if you asked questions that were really thoughtful questions where you expected more of people where you were genuinely curious where you actually had high expectations of the ability to people to come together to arrive at a solution and the last question for you is what world are you creating with the questions that you're currently asking thank you [Applause]

  1. This is a great talk. Community engagement is a key factor of creating a better future. Govt entities should not only focus on techniques but also the public participation.

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