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Improve public engagement by noticing what you do well

Looking elsewhere for good practice may be useful but it’s not always necessary.  By noticing the things that work for you already, you can do more of what works and get inspiration for new things to try.  This point was really well demonstrated at a workshop I ran at last year’s Centre for Public Scrutiny Annual Conference on improving public engagement.

“What works for you already?”

People involved in local government scrutiny want to improve their public engagement work but it’s a challenging aspect of their practice.  It was no surprise, therefore, that this was chosen as a workshop topic at last year’s Centre for Public Scrutiny’s annual conference. It was also no surprise that the workshop was well attended by people who felt stuck on this issue and were keen to find out how to make progress.

However, by focussing on ‘what works for you already?’, we learnt about some great examples – even from the people who felt that they weren’t doing much – it turned out, in fact, that they were!

We used a zero to ten scaling question to find out how well people felt they were doing.  Even though the scores people gave themselves were sometimes quite low, they were able to highlight some really positive practice that had got them to those scores.  In fact, once you start really noticing the things that have worked, you might realise that your score really isn’t as low as you thought.

One example from a council was as follows.  When asked to give a score about their experience of public engagement they gave it only one out of ten. When then asked if they had ever had a good experience, after some reflection they said yes, once we had a really good meeting about the proposed closure of a health centre. After some careful questions it became clear that this had happened because the issue had been spotted by the team in the local press.  Noticing what had worked before led to the idea of scanning the local press for topics that would be of public interest.

Scrutiny practitioner ideas for better public engagement

Just to give you a flavour, below are ten of the good practices for better public engagement that participants noticed.  But remember, the things that are likely to work best for you, in your particular context, might not be the same.

  1. Use third parties to engage with people for you such as partner organisations, voluntary groups and the local media
  2. Use existing council processes to engage through e.g. budget, planning, residents’ associations, social media, media releases, council newspaper
  3. Involve the public in developing your work plan work
  4. Talk and listen to the user / interest groups linked to your council
  5. Use the council comms team to get the most out of traditional and social media
  6. Use committee members to get messages out about scrutiny business and support the especially active councillors to do more
  7. Talk to residents associations and go to their meetings
  8. Use your contacts in other council teams to advise and help you to engage with the people they work with e.g. schools, tenants, community groups
  9. Use social media to contact interested parties
  10. Scan the local media to pick up issues of public concern / issues the public will want to engage with

Noticing what you do well

So, the ideas above might have given you some inspiration but why not try this little exercise yourself?

Ask yourself where you are on a scale of zero to ten, where zero is ‘our public engagement is a complete disaster’ and ten is ‘our public engagement is completely wonderful’.

Got a number?


Now write down ten things you have done to get you to that number, ten things that mean you are not at zero.

See, you do some good things already.  Now get out there and do some more.


P.S. Details of the 2017 Centre for Public Scrutiny Conference can be found here.

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Zero to ten scales – simple, useful and solution focussed

Zero to ten scales are a really useful technique for any governing body (or anyone else for that matter) to have up their sleeve.  They are simple to understand, can help you to notice what you are doing well and helpful for identifying  practical next steps.  So here is a brief description of how you might use these scales and of some of the questions that go with them.

I’ve started using zero to ten scales a lot in my work.  They are an important technique for a solution focussed* practitioner and I have found many different opportunities to use them.  They are a useful tool for governing bodies to have in the toolbox – not least for when reviewing what they do.

Making a judgement

The format of the first scale question is simple:

“Imagine a scale of zero to ten, where zero is the worst things can be and ten is the best they can be.  Where would you say we are on that scale?”

As a governing body you might use a scale question like this when reviewing an issue like transparency.  Going round the table and asking everyone what they would give as their score will give you a good feel for where everyone is, how everyone feels.

Of course what you are asking for is a judgement, not a scientific statement of fact.  If there was a simple measure of the subject under review you would of course use that instead.  But, when it comes to a question like ‘how transparent are we?’, there is no simple objective indicator to be used – that’s why we need to employ subjective human judgement.

In some ways the first question (and the number itself) is not that important – more important is the process of making the judgement because this process leads into further useful areas of questioning.

Noticing what we do well

Once you have a score from everyone you can ask each individual what got them to the score they suggested.  Even for a ‘one’ or a ‘two’ there must be some positive things being done to get them to that number.

It might be asked like this:

OK Janet, you gave a five for transparency.  Can you share some of the things we are doing as a governing body that get us up to that five?

One of the many things I learnt from my solution focussed training with BRIEF, was that writing down lists of things that we do well can be very powerful.  Not only does it build confidence when we reflect on our positives but it gives us inspiration for things to do more of and for new things to do.  These things are what Mark McKergow calls ‘counters’ – things that count towards achieving what we want to do.  These are things we can often fail to to notice – scale questions help us to notice them.

Being ambitious

Of course we can’t always be a ten and sometimes we don’t even want to be.  Scale questions can help us to get a sense of just how ambitious we want to be.

We can ask:

OK Jane, you said we are at a five.  Where on the scale do you think we should be?  What number should we be aiming at?

Once a number has been given it’s then possible to discuss what that that would mean.  What would people notice if we were at that seven or eight? What would you notice?

Taking the next steps

Another great thing about the zero to ten scale is that it can help us to identify improvements.

The next question is the ‘plus one’ question that might go something like this:

OK John, you gave us a six for transparency. What could we do that would get us up to a seven do you think?

What I like about this question is that we are not being asked to come up with some detailed or long term strategy.  Rather the question invites us to suggest  small, practical steps that might move us towards our preferred destination. Going round the table with this question should help to generate a whole list of things that will help to move the governing body forward.

Another way of asking this is like this:

“OK John, you gave us a six, but what would people notice was different if we moved up to a seven? What would the public notice? What would our partners notice? What would our staff notice?

Again, the aim is to get people thinking in concrete terms what improvement might look like.

It’s all about the destination

It’s worth noting that scale questions work best when you have a clear destination in mind – the more detailed the description of what good looks like the better.  Ideally you will want to develop your own descriptions but ready made ‘destinations’, say from expert organisations, can be used if they make sense to you.

This destination is often referred to in the solution focussed world as the preferred future.

Assessing progress

Zero to ten scales are also a neat way of discussing progress.

OK Jane, last month you thought we were a five for transparency.  Where do you think we are now? Oh, a six you say?  What tells you we are now a six?  Interesting…. now what would a seven look like?

You get the picture.

Benefits of the technique

Of course this is not a technique that will suit everyone and every situation – but it can be very useful.  Here are some things I like in particular:

  • As a solution focused approach it places attention on assets and aspirations rather than problems
  • Scale questions allow you to be both ambitious about the future AND realistic
  • The approach helps to ensure that conversations stay manageable and practical
  • It’s easy to move quickly from an assessment of the current situation to what the response might be
  • It’s easy to explain and to get people engaged – you could use scale questions as the basis for public engagement, for example.


*I’ve written about what it means to be solution focussed here.

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