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Engagement and service design to raise community voices

At GCVS, we recognise the value of lived experience in informing decisions that result in the best outcomes for the citizens of Glasgow. The voices and needs of citizens are essential to everything from third sector organisations planning their activities to informing national policy development and everything in between. We want GCVS to play a role in enabling this at all levels. We want to support organisations in embedding the voices of their communities in how they approach their work and, through our role as an intermediary representing Glasgow’s third sector, ensure that communities can influence all levels of decision-making.

This blog series, exploring community engagement and service design, offers guidance on these topics. Most importantly, we hope to open up conversations and opportunities for bringing together the wealth of sector expertise from across Glasgow.

Breaking Down the Language

Confusion regarding language in this area is common and understandable. Phrases like participation, community engagement, consultation, service user involvement, user research, and embedding lived experience are sometimes used interchangeably. Other times, they refer to specific approaches in an area of work. But underpinning all the above is one key concept:

The people who use services should have an active role in making decisions about how they are designed and delivered.

In this blog, we’ll use community engagement as an umbrella term for different participation methods and explore how it connects with service design.

Community engagement has traditionally described how public sector decision-makers invite citizen input on decisions that affect them. For instance, insights into community views and needs on urban planning or local policies may be gleaned through workshops or surveys. Generally, due to the close nature of their work with individuals, third sector organisations are already well-placed to understand the needs and experiences of their communities. Nevertheless, structured engagement methods can be helpful. For example, when planning new initiatives, addressing problems and opportunities, reaching beyond current service users, bringing people together, or gathering data to support funding applications and reporting.

The Evolving Community Engagement Process

In recent years, the ambition for engagement processes to give participants more power and influence has become more common, with increased interest in practices such as co-design and co-production. These aim to involve service users or individuals with lived experience as equal partners alongside other stakeholders and professionals when developing services, activities, strategies, and policies.

Good community engagement results in better decisions, better services that meet people’s needs, better relationships, and more trust. With approaches like co-design or co-production, it is even more vital that we get it right. When care isn’t taken, engagement can come across as tokenistic and erode relationships instead of building them.

The National Standards of Community Engagement can be a helpful guide to support getting engagement right. At GCVS, we provide training that covers how to use them and explores how service design approaches can benefit our engagement practice.

The image shows a group of people having a discussion centred around one woman who looks to be reading something out.

Defining Service Design

The term ‘service design’ is a process for designing services informed by user needs and experiences. Traditionally, this has been through user research, but as in engagement, there is a shift towards more collaborative and empowering ways of working with participants. The Scottish Approach to Service Design reflects this by emphasising meaningful participation. This means that best practices in community engagement are also relevant for a good service design process.

Just like the National Standards for Community Engagement, the seven principles of the Scottish Approach to Service Design express the importance of participation that is inclusive, accessible, meaningful, and a key part of the process from the very start. A good community engagement process is not dissimilar from a service design process. And while aspects of service design practice extend beyond standard engagement approaches, they can inform how we think about engagement.

Many challenging situations that practitioners face when leading engagement can be avoided by ensuring clarity about the aims and process of engagement. This clarity can be difficult to create when dealing with complex projects, such as those involving multiple engagement stages, resulting in mismanaged expectations, tensions, or input that is unhelpful, irrelevant or untimely. We can borrow the “double diamond” framework from service design to help us plan effective activities. In our Community Engagement Level 2 training, we practice using this framework to create clarity and structure.

Where Can I Find Support?

Regardless of the language used, it’s vital to create meaningful opportunities for people to participate in decisions that affect them. If you’d like to learn more about embedding the National Standards and using service design frameworks, consider coming to some of our training. Stepping Forward into Engaging with Communities covers the basic theory behind engagement. Meanwhile, the Level 2 training offers an opportunity to apply approaches to your planning informed by the National Standards and Double Diamond.

Community engagement work can be challenging, and external factors, such as tight funding timelines, can limit our sector’s ability to do it well. GCVS is here to support Glasgow’s third sector, but the quality of this support relies on having a good understanding of its needs and challenges. We hope this blog can be a starting point for conversation, and we invite your reflections, insights, or questions we can tackle in future blogs in the comments.

As we develop our offer of support around engagement and design, we are pleased to offer three member organisations an opportunity to work with our Design and Engagement Lead on a challenge or opportunity related to engagement. Please fill out this form to express your interest or email with any questions.

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