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Why I don’t like “Focus Groups”

Well the original idea was a good one, but I think the phrase “focus group” has become debased such that sometimes it can be code for getting a group of people together to legitimise a decision  – policy based evidence.

Effective engagement takes time, needs to be authentic and use different methods to attract different views.    Think again about “Hard to Reach”.   How well represented are white men, aged between 30 and 50 who are in work in consultation meetings, how do make your services relevant to a single working mother juggling work, school and home?   Not easy questions, but authentic engagement is not a quick fix either.

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Do the preparation, check the destination

The  project has been completed, the final report, finally approved, the diary is clear of project update meetings and the virtual team has gone its separate ways.

But what has changed?   How have things improved?   Have things got better for local people?   These are the questions which we need to be answered for any project involving public resources and aimed at addressing local community need.     Sounds obvious but how good is the sector at addressing these questions – from my own experience I think the picture is mixed.   There are some genuine efforts to communicate with residents about project outcomes and whether the initial objectives were achieved.      There are also some pretty poorly executed attempts at corporate back-slapping based on fairly limited progress.

The reason for this is measuring outcomes means we need to state clearly at the outset of the project “how will people be better off”.    Mark Friedman discusses the process of “turning the curve”; describing the outcome to be improved and what is likely to happen if nothing changes.   Actions are then measured against this projected baseline.  By taking effective and timely actions, improvements are made against the baseline.

The trick is doing the preparation beforehand to agree the metrics by which the project will be judged, including milestones to check progress along the way.    And regularly communicate with residents must be central to the project.

If people don’t feel that things have changed then the project can’t be claimed to be a success.

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We don’t do politics here…

…well that’s not quite true.   Despite the name of our company Red Potato doesn’t do party politics, we are apolitical; we work with all the mainstream parties and none.

We are committed to improving things for local people.   We are committed to working with people who want to challenge the way things are done.   We also believe passionately in demonstrating the value of the work we do with the communities we serve.

If you recognise any of this, perhaps we should meet.

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Too much data can lead to the wrong decision

The public sector deals in information, yet the value of that information is sometimes lost amongst all the other things going on.   Often we are asking elected members or senior management to make an informed judgement on policy based on too much data.   Yes you read it right, “too much data” masking the key points we are trying to convey.

The Place Survey contained vast amounts of data, but how much was then distilled into intelligence which could be used to drive local improvements?  I have been part of presentations where legions of graphs were presented on resident satisfaction and the importance of different services only to find that the data is used to justify existing policy.

Maybe a different approach is needed in which we use pictures to give direction of travel and focus on the issues being discussed.   Less data, presented more effectively can be more powerful.

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The reason for consultation

The Consultation Institute provides a useful glossary entry on “consultation”

It says consultation is “The dynamic process of dialogue between individuals or groups, based upon a genuine exchange of views and with the objective of influencing decisions, policies or programmes of action”  

The quote says “genuine exchange”  – how often have we been involved in consultation where there has been a “genuine exchange”.    One area where we could improve the relationship with local residents is by making that extra effort to go back and inform local people about the results of the consultation.   This goes beyond a “you said, we did” press release; it requires time and patience, but the benefit is that local people will feel their voice is being heard.

 

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Change is tricky

OK so you’ve got this great idea – it hits the “green” button, it will reduce costs to your organisation and provide greater insight into how the organisation works. Simples, all you need to do is tell your boss what you plan to do and then wait for the plaudits from the Chief Executive.

How wrong can you be?

Thing is that what you may see as a change for the better, will have unintended consequences across the organisation.   Those vested interests will do their best to frustrate the changes, hence the importance of taking the time to build a strong coalition of people who see change in their interest.  Also having a clear vision and sticking with it.    And finally keeping the common touch, while inspiring all to greater things.   Easy really!