The International Association for Public Participation conference in Adelaide this year – Best Practice in Community Engagement – was a smorgasbord of ideas and inspiration.

Here are my top takeouts:

New tools, same tricks

New, technology based, ways to do things are rarely shifts in practice but repackaging of the tools that work. And my top takeaway from the conference was that no quantum of technical new fanglery will replace the basic of good practice – planning and preparation.

How you apply participation tools on top of that will make the difference between good and great. For example, the use of ‘paper tweets‘ at an evening fringe event was whimsical, drawing attention and providing a platform to extend the conversation – but if there hadn’t been something worth talking about, they would’ve just been decor.

Strength in numbers

Do your research, get your facts before you start, and don’t stop measuring til after you’ve finished. City of Melbourne asked their community how best to engage them, and now has categories of stakeholders based on this research, with recommendations for best methods to engage each category.

Aaron Wallis at Playce PL gave some examples of how the best intentioned research can lead to missing the facts if you don’t ask the right question – there is a real art to finding out what people really want and need, not just what they think they know.

Strength in numbers 2

Daniel Popping and Sheila Brown (Adelaide City Council) gave ten tips for embedding engagement across your organisation, not least of which is to reward champions with chocolate frogs (I popped into Haigs for a packet of them before I left Adelaide) while Tanya Jackson (Penrith City Council) impressed many conference goers with the simple mantra of “start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”

Collaborate is not just for the community

Along the same lines, you need to work in partnership with your clients whether you’re working as an internal advice agency or as a consultant. Anne Pattillo tipped us the wink that collaborative practice has friends when things go wrong, and David O’Loughlin, Mayor of the City of Prospect in SA, argued strongly for a partnership approach between local and state government. This was particularly applied to planning matters and the concept makes me feel like my head is turning inside out but what a boon for the community if it could be done.

Watch your figure

It’s a long running dilemma for the under-resourced – where should my energy go? I have to be strategic and manage upwards, I have to be on top of my own team and business unit, and I need to get the actual work done.

Anne Pattillo provides an elegant model for this with her What Not to Wear concept – if you’re spending all your time at the bottom of this to do list, you’re a pear; if you’re largely at the top, a lollipop, and so on. Where you should actually be, of course, depends on what you need to achieve in your role.

Anne had so many great models and examples that I could have written this whole blog on what I got from her but that would change the top ten of the conference to a review of Anne’s masterclass and probably infringe on her IP. Suffice to say, her training is highly recommended and if you get along to a Cred! or Building an Engaging Organisation class through IAP2, you won’t regret it.

Story time

Everyone has a story and stories can be a powerful way to invoke participation. Bang the Table’s Crispin Butteriss spoke inspiringly on digital stories, which can take many forms – words, music stills, movies.

The engagement practitioner can gather these, using them collaboratively, contextualising them and making them accessible. Crispin also made me think that if we present people’s stories back to them, or teach them to present them, we can provide a quid pro quo. Crispin invited us to further explore ways we can give back.

Control is an illusion

Having been fascinated by Dr Kieren Moffat‘s presentation of mining data, including around the concept of a social licence to operate, I was a bit depressed when he suggested that all my templates and procedures just give me an illusion of control. He cleared this up via twitter though, saying this was actually a licence to be creative, innovate and respond to the situation at hand. Get in there!

Things that make you go ooooh

Innovation is relative, but some things are really cool and make you go ‘ooooh’ even if you have seen them before. Thank you, Lucy Marshall at Capire Consulting, for bringing ball pit conversations to a wider audience.

It’s good to talk

As with many conferences, but I find with participation types more than any, the discussions before and after each session (okay, and during) were often the most enlightening. If we can keep this up with colleagues near and far in every day practice, we can keep learning from each other. This applies online too – in fact…


If you can’t be there, you can still #attend – many tweeters kept the takeouts flowing over twitter, with some great participation by #gatehashers who couldn’t be there. The tweets have also made a great repository of thought provokers for me to refer to, and some notes from the above aren’t from a session I attended in person but benefitted from via twitter or indeed over arvos.

And if you didn’t already know it, Adelaide is beautiful, well worth a visit.

 Image credit: Dan Popping

About the author: Marion J Lawie

Marion J Lawie
Marion J Lawie

Marion J Lawie is a local government officer in the heart of South East Queensland. She’s past trying to work out who the community is but is still stuck on engagement cf decision making. Marion is a teacher by trade, obsessed with apostrophes, and very proud of her team and her city.

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