I’ve been wanting to blog about how we can better scope and define projects for quite some time, especially for authentic co-design. Now we have a tool to move beyond the binary negotiable/non-negotiable approach in development I couldn’t resist any longer.
We all know it’s handy when engaging the community, to differentiate between project ‘negotiables’ (what can be influenced) and ‘non-negotiables’ (what cannot be influenced by the process). But being clear on what fits underneath these labels isn’t always as easy as it may first appear. In my 25 years as an engagement practitioner, I have come across some frequent issues with this part of the project planning process, that can cause untold trouble once we move past planning and start implementing the engagement.
One of the most frequent issues I see is that project managers can be far too eager to establish factors as being non-negotiables when it would be more accurate to identify them as inconvenient elements if selected by the community. This is particularly common when a significant chunk of work has already been completed before going out to the community and the team are only interested in support for what they feel is their one perfect solution. If that is the case, co-design is likely not the best engagement tool to use here. Look at conventional community engagement instead.
Another issue is that it is not unusual to find that some elements of a project initially put forward as non-negotiables, end up being negotiable after all – especially when there is outrage around the project, or an election is looming.
Thirdly, sometimes there are genuine non-negotiables that are not made transparent to the community. This is particularly damaging when engagement occurs on the pretence of these elements being influenceable - and can result in something more accurately described as ‘nonsultation’. It goes without saying that this is definitely not co-design.
All of these issues can lead to poor outcomes for not only the project in question, but also future projects as the relationship with your community is damaged and confidence that their time and opinions have the capacity for meaningful change is eroded.
The answer to these issues normally focuses on advice such as ‘be more substantial, ‘engage early in the process’ and ‘be more transparent, and these are all things I believe are important for good community engagement. But I have also begun to recognise that not everything can be divided into the basket of ‘negotiable’ or ‘non-negotiable’ and perhaps limiting our project scope to these two baskets is contributing to the issues we face.
Our new tool urges our clients to break down their projects into four separate baskets; absolutely non-negotiable elements, absolutely negotiable elements, elements you are committed to based on evidence and elements that are still undecided. Let’s look at these more closely.
Basket 1: Absolutely Non-Negotiable
These are factors that are fundamentally non-negotiable and unlikely to ever be changed if challenged. It could relate to existing policies, logistic requirements like the need for power to a location, laws and responsibilities to the community. This basket might also include elements that may be negotiable at some point, but are not up for negotiation as part of this engagement (for example, in the local Government sector, the addition of a new type of bin may be a topic of interest to the community but is not up for negotiation as part of a process regarding a new bike lane). Another non-negotiable might relate to jurisdictional requirements, such an environmental outcomes that need to be achieved to comply with a relevant government authority.
Basket 2: Absolutely Negotiable
These are factors the engagement processes can and should influence, otherwise known as your reason for engaging the community. For example, if you are engaging on the introduction of parking restrictions, your negotiable elements might be the streets affected, the length of restrictions (options might be presented), exceptions to the restrictions (e.g. residents permits) and who can access these exceptions. If they are a substantial enough topic, the project is likely best delivered as a co-design or deliberative process, rather than a process that is only looking to gauge the level of support on parking restrictions that have already been decided.
Basket 3: Committed and Evidence-Based Elements
These are the factors that your subject matter experts are committed to based on the research that is available. Though they still require testing with the community. For example, you might have a preferred approach for delivering a project based on a cost/benefit analysis or technical study but are still required to test the solution for community support. The reasons that these elements are heavily preferred should be clearly explained to a panel or community but if there are compelling reasons that the community does not want to go with this option you will need to be open to investigating alternatives. It is possible to run a co-design process with these types of elements.
Basket 4: Undecided Elements
This is for the elements that you haven’t decided yet, or are open to considering though their acceptance is conditional on further technical studies. For example, you might be open to providing a new pedestrian crossing, but require a traffic management study to ensure it is appropriate in the desired location. Or you may be able to design a new service program with the community users once further details are known about ongoing funding. This is an important category to ensure you aren’t lumping things into the negotiable or non-negotiable category when new information could change this categorisation.
So, what do you think? Would this new four-quadrant approach to identifying the project scope be useful for you when compared to the risks of a traditional negotiable and non-negotiable approach. Or is it making things more complicated? We are keen for your feedback as we continue to develop this tool and if you are interested definitely keep an eye out for its launch on LinkedIn or https://maxhardy.com.au/. And, for more info on Authentic Co-design, please visit https://www.authenticcodesign.com/.