Here at MAC we always like to say that the best time to engage with people is when they can see the point of engaging, when there is something to fight for or against. Number One in the Reasons to Engage Top Ten is “Taking It Away”. We see this in the NHS – the mere mention that something is to close is enough to get the placard wavers out in the streets (not to mention the odd local politician). No matter that the thing which is being taken away is not needed, overpriced, under-performing or the source of numerous complaints. No matter if it is going to be replaced with something better. As all public servants know, you “Take Away” at your peril. But I have recently been getting a new insight into user engagement which may be pushing “Taking It Away” out of the Number One Slot – and replacing it with “Giving Something New”.
The Shock of The New
Crucially, whilst it can be very hard to get people to engage early on with the theoretical idea of Something New, the actuality of the New Thing, once it appears, can trigger wild enthusiasm to engage. It is usually relatively easy to identify what people dislike about the Existing Thing but harder to put your finger on exactly what they like about it. And it is very hard indeed to discover what they might want in the New Thing if it does not yet exist. So the appearance of something new provides the perfect trigger for engagement and dialogue. Complaint and concerns become the engagement entry point but as we all know (don’t we) a complainant properly handled can be converted to a fan: complaints as opportunity, not threat.
I have been involved as the chair of my local park user group in a major project funded by the Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the park and the almost derelict 18th century house within it. £9m and two years since the contractors arrived on site, the house and the cafe within it opened at the beginning of this month. Inevitably the new cafe was inundated with people from the minute it opened (5000 customers in the first six days) and, just as inevitably, the cafe, the Council and the User Group have been inundated with complaints and comments.
It being 2012 these take a multitude of forms and are directed at anyone who cares to listen: lengthy emails to Council officers and the user group; witty, sensible and balanced blogs full of good ideas followed by bitter and angry riposts from both named and anonymous commentators; tweeters tweeting and retweeting into infinity and the familiar range of constructive and snide comments on the pages of Facebook. Amidst all the noise there has in fact been a lot of positive feedback too but somehow that’s not what you notice or what sticks in your mind when you down that second glass of wine after reading Bile Man’s tenth post of the day.
High volume feedback
It feels like there is a heck of a lot of noise going on, though if you read carefully and once your ear is attuned you start to realise that in many cases it is the same people having the same conversation in a multitude of different forums (and I suspect under a number of different “identities” aka silly names). I am glad I have had twenty years in this game, otherwise I think I might have been a bit overwhelmed by the wave of anger and vitriol that has been washing over my computer screen in the last few days.
If I were doing this as a job, rather than as a volunteer and interested amateur, I’d find it hard to know where to begin in terms of being responsive. I might well wish for the good old days of having to respond only if a complaint was submitted in writing to the right department and followed the Complaints Policy to the letter, complete with a turn-around time of twenty working days. As yet no-one from the Council seems to have joined any of these public debates (although I feel sure they are watching). I can see why, but they do need to be tapping into this wealth of user feedback in some way and letting people know they are listening – not just by making changes but telling people that they are making these changes in response to their comments. The good old Feedback Loop.
Bad old days but simple complaints
In the old days people complained that they could not get into the cafe because there was no step free access, the coffee was horrible, the food was unpleasant and unhealthy, the service poor, you had to queue for up to half an hour to get served when it was busy and you had to go outside to use the dirty smelly toilet block and there was nowhere to change a nappy.
So what has the Council done? It has put in a lift so buggies and wheelchairs can have access to the whole house, it has brought in an experienced cafe provider which sells good coffee and healthy and attractive food, it has knocked down the disgusting toilet block and put the toilets in the house with fancy hand-dryers and a separate baby-changing room and it has introduced table service so people don’t have to queue whilst trying to control their children, leaving their friends to hang on to a table while they waited.
Are the good people of the Stoke Newington twittersphere falling over themselves to demonstrate their appreciation of the Council’s responsiveness and their gratitude to the Heritage Lottery Fund? Of course not. They have long since forgotten what was wrong with the old cafe that closed two years ago. What matters is what’s wrong with what they see now.
Panning for gold
Maybe it is not the “Taking Away” or the “Giving Something New” that is the problem. Maybe it is simply a matter of change. It is a fact of life for anyone involved in delivering change in the public realm that some people won’t like it. And it is another fact of life that you won’t get everything right first time: them damn punters just won’t use the building the way they are supposed to. But our new cafe is not finished, the building has opened but what happens inside it is a work in progress and here we have a great opportunity to get a dialogue going with users. We have existed for twenty year struggling to get more than twenty people into the room for our bi-monthly meetings to talk about all the boring stuff. Suddenly everyone, everywhere seems to want to be heard and there is gold in them there users (once you can filter it out). How we handle this is the next challenge facing User Group and the Council.
I can understand why the people who are working flat out to deliver new and better things to an apparently ungrateful public might be tempted to start seeing these people as a tiresome minority who will never be satisfied and metaphorically dump them in the files marked variously moaner, whinger, nutter, axe-grinder, single-issue-obsessive. And from personal experience this week I can assure you that it can be very difficult to respond positively in the face of the unfounded, misinformed personal attacks that often accompany the nastier blogs and tweets. I get this stuff at some of our meetings too so it is nothing new. Some are insulting – some plain baffling. (The man who turned down my offer to meet him in person to talk about his concerns suggested “knitted yogurt” may “float my boat”. Huh?)
Listening is a two way street
It is hard to stay in listening mode with people who seem determined to think the worst of everyone who is engaged in trying to make things better whether they be public servants, politicians or local volunteers and who insist on attributing the worst possible motives to your involvement: I obviously must be receiving back-handers from the Council; the cafe offering to provide free tea and coffee for the user group’s first meeting is a sign not of support for local involvement but of “ingratiation”; because I described the bread as “fresh” when the word is not actually used on the menu, I am thought to have some sort of insider knowledge which probably results from the fact that I hold shares in the cafe. And not content with having a go at people like me who are sort of asking for it, they even have a go at other ordinary people who have the audacity to say they quite like the changes. If this is what Big Society feels like I am not surprised it is not get many takers.
Instant gratification – instant turn-off
Every time your respond you simply breed yet more comments and sometimes you wish they would just shut up and leave you alone. You want to turn off the computer but you know if you do they will still be at it, angrily bashing at their keyboards forming new alliances with other people with equally silly made-up names, finding new people to despise and practising their one-up-man-ship skills. Just waiting for you to come back as you surely will and must. Worst of all are those websites where every single reply invites another reply, and that reply another reply and so on for ever and ever and suddenly you have not a single snake of comment and counter-comment but a multi-headed hydra with all the heads screaming at each other and at you.
You can’t even satisfy them by asking them to read info you have prepared earlier. “I’ve waited two days for a direct reply to Emma’s question….” said a post at 9.58am on Sunday haranguing me for not answering a question about the user group’s constitution posted at lunchtime on Friday even though I had immediately posted a link to the website where there is loads of detailed information about how we work. The more you try to respond the more the process saps your time, your energy and your goodwill. And like I say, I am just a volunteer. If I worked for the Council (WHICH I DON’T BTW) I’m not sure I’d be wanting your hard-earned Council tax to be spent paying me to do this.
We need an engagement answer that works
So what is the answer to this modern conundrum? How do service providers and small unfunded voluntary community groups like the Clissold Park User Group engage constructively and cost-effectively with users in this new world where so many people are keen to share their view, opinion or bad experiences (plus the odd inaccurate or misleading “fact” and a couple of unpleasant insinuations) not just with the service provider but with other users? How can providers and user representatives manage and make sense of a wealth of unfiltered, uncontrolled feedback? How do you get the facts out to people amidst all the clamour? How do you get the dialogue right when each individual can choose the time, place and medium through which they express themselves rather than following the rules of engagement set down by others. How do we all make sense of a world where it feels as if, to quote Tim Minchin in the musical Matilda, “What you know matters less than the volume with which what you don’t know’s expressed”?
Is there a way to prevent people feeling that if they get a response they are just being fobbed off and and if they don’t, no-one cares or is listening? And how do we address the inherent imbalance and lack of openness in the fact that complainants can lurk behind masks of anonymity whilst make personal attacks on named individuals who are either doing their job as officers, acting as democratic representatives or volunteering their time. In a small and demographically compact community, how do we encourage people to show their faces and join the debate openly- should those who won’t be given the same status in the conversation as those who do? After all this is not a school or a GP’s practice we are talking about where there may be real issues of confidentiality or personal anxiety about power relationships: this is just a local park with a cafe in it.
Listening to the waving – and the drowning – but not the shouting
And while we are talking about public engagement in services like health, education and social care, it’s worth thinking about how the challenges of modern public and user involvement affect these much more important and more sensitive areas. With all this racket going on, what can people in positions of responsibility and influence do to make sure they are hearing the people who are not shouting but quietly waving or maybe even drowning?
The Moore Adamson Craig Partnership supports user and public participation, trains lay representatives and develops responsive health, care and education organisations. We work with complaint handlers to achieve user satisfaction and recommendation.