Getting Engagement Harder Than You Think

Public engagement written on gear wheel

By Harry Brook

This is not my usual column content, but I see an issue that is becoming critical to the well-being of our society. No matter where you work or what you do, if it involves people, engagement is necessary. Public engagement is necessary for service groups, businesses and governments to effectively do their jobs and serve their clients well.

Recently, I have attended several events and from my own personal experience, the question asked is “How can we get more people engaged”? Many groups are reaching out to members to get feedback and input and they are all having problems connecting with members of the group. They need member input to ensure they are going in the right direction and working on the right goals.

What is engagement? In this regard, engagement is “an arrangement to meet or be present”. Doesn’t sound difficult, does it? However, it has become a challenge for most organizations. Engagement requires people to be present, which means that they are greatly interested or committed. In many ways, despite the multiplicity of methods that we have to communicate, we seem to be drifting further away from each other with fewer meaningful conversations or less engagement.

Why is engagement important? Engagement is empowering if done well. It requires mutual respect and an honest desire to “listen” and consider other opinions and ideas. Also, it involves the ability to “inform,” which helps stakeholders understand the problems and solutions. If you truly have meaningful engagement and your thoughts/concerns are considered, you will have more ownership and understanding about the decision or outcomes.

There are barriers to becoming engaged. They can be loosely divided into four categories. They are awareness, time, interest and trust.

Awareness is not usually the issue as we have so many ways to promote and inform. That cuts both ways as you can promote your issue through multiple methods, but over-advertising can cause the public to ignore the message. It is also easy to have your request for input buried beneath the daily avalanche of information and distraction.

Time is a big one. Our lives are so busy and filled, we often don’t have time for any more activity or involvement. You make time for what is important to you, and everything else is optional. Time works both ways. You need time to inform the public and to collect their input and explain the decisions and the “why” of it.

Interest is another major hurdle to becoming engaged. Is the group or work something you are interested or concerned about? Should you be? Where is civic duty? What value can you get out of it or bring to it to make it worth your while?

Finally, the fourth factor is trust. This is huge when dealing with any organization. When a group seeks public engagement, are they just looking for public endorsement for what they have already planned to do? Are they just going through the motions to make it look like they’ve consulted with the public? Or do they want to actually have it about why and how they choose and achieve their goals?

When engagement is properly conducted, there will be an increase in interaction among participants, an increase in collaborative behaviour, an increase in available information, an increase in commitment to action, an increase in participant satisfaction, an increase in creative options, and ultimately an increase in the well-being of our communities.

Harry Brook is Flagstaff County’s Agricultural Fieldman. He can be reached via email at: or by phone at: 780-384-4138.