Do you walk the walk?

Posted 10:52 Monday 17 July 2017
Nick Goodman

Nick Goodman

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Challenge 2020 Embedding Engagement

Back in May MES hosted its second annual conference dedicated to our area of work in the health sector: patient, public and staff engagement.  Following our inaugural event in 2016 (ADVANCING health engagement and involvement) this year we looked at EMBEDDING Engagement in Health.  For 2017 we sought to go a little deeper to explore the challenges for leaders in the health sector in making their engagement activities a default setting and a BAU function, and some tangible examples of how it’s being done and where it is succeeding.  We also reminded ourselves of why to bother in the first place.

This last point can be answered in so many ways, and evidenced especially these past few months.  Looking beyond just health, the appetite for meaningful engagement has never been greater.  Politically there is a shift going on: the recent general election saw the Labour Party successfully tap into the younger vote after a long period of viewing the group as simply ‘disaffected’. Not so.  Find the right language, the right subjects and the right passion and younger voters want to be involved – so long as it is genuine and from the ground up. The GE turnout was up partly as a result. I say partly because other groups too got out the vote, perhaps because this one seemed like a significant moment. 2016 obviously saw significant voters taking part in the European referendum which, whatever your view on the outcome, showed that people wanted and needed to have their say.

Beyond the more obvious barometer of elections and turnout, one can look to other political activities. The numbers of people, from all walks of life, getting involved in various marches and protests is from my view as strong as it ever was – or certainly when I was marching for teachers and the CND around 1985. Now on one hand this may tell us ”we’re in a mess and there are some serious problems that need addressing”.  I don’t disagree. But what it also says, after many years of bemoaning apathy and disengagement is that, actually, not so.  We are bothered, and willing to demonstrate that.

What would it look like if these same people – us – were asked for their views and input beforehand?  Would that be so bad? Or would a collaborative, more consensual approach to decision making actually a) result in better decisions being made, b) ensure decisions have more buy-in from the start and c) avoid the kind of fraught, angrier engagement that can emerge when it’s not done right (or at all) in the first place. Maybe this is a simplistic view but I am not so sure.  If we look at the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire just a few weeks ago, and without trying to prejudge the public enquiry, for me a picture does seem to be emerging of residents speaking up and expressing views and concerns but not being heard. Now there are undoubtedly many more reasons for the disaster that will be unearthed in the coming months but this one aspect again shows that people care for and wish to be involved in their communities, and they are worth listening to.

Something a few of our speakers and keynotes referenced at our Challenge 2020 conference was the ‘Ladder of Engagement’: the levels of engagement that range from tokenistic to meaningful, two-way and effective dialogue. Where an organisation is on that ladder is often down to their leadership and their ethics. Is your organisation walking the walk or simply talking the talk?

The final keynote speech from Rory Campbell, Partnership Registrar at John Lewis Partnership gave our health sector audience an insight from a retailer that has ethics and the prioritising of staff and customer engagement embedded in their very constitution.  As such, they have a compass that continually guides and informs their direction, and a big influence (or magnet!) in this compass is what their staff say to them. For JLP, engagement starts at home with their staff. Without that, their model and reputation is doomed. This sort of language is gaining a momentum, none more so than in the NHS. However for me, it is still too ‘talky’. It needs be more ‘walk’ and, for this, leaders need to buy into and take a longer term view of why engaging their customers (staff, public, patients, us) will benefit. Collaborative and more involved decision-making is good for everyone.

You can read all the excellent presentations from 2017’s Challenge 2020 here and, of course, contact MES anytime for a chat. Feel free to also express early interest in 2018’s conference here by emailing More news on that later in the year.

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