Understanding common approaches to working with clients, communities and other stakeholders
Mitchell Bowden, Shae Johnson
Service organisations are increasingly being asked to involve clients, communities and other stakeholders when designing and delivering services., Terms such as collaboration, community engagement and co-design are often used interchangeably, despite having different meanings and purposes. A misunderstanding of key concepts can impact planning, communication and resource allocation, as well as outcomes for families. This short article explores the key features of these concepts to support service managers and program planners to select and adopt the best approach for their situation.
What are common approaches to working with clients, communities and other stakeholders?
Three common approaches to working with clients, communities and other stakeholders are outlined in Table 1. Understanding these different approaches can help to prevent duplication of effort, create innovative solutions to difficult problems and promote shared ownership of outcomes; ultimately creating more relevant and sustainable results.,
Individuals or organisations work together to address problems and develop solutions that may not be possible or as effective if working separately. While the formality of arrangements and the different activities involved can vary, collaboration generally includes agreement on:
Community engagement incorporates the voices of those who will be affected by a decision to ensure its appropriateness and encourage shared ownership of any outcomes. Stakeholders need to be meaningfully involved and information should clearly communicate how their input will affect the decision. These activities should be tailored to local needs and can include:
Co-design (or collaborative design) is a method for designing and implementing a project (i.e. program, service or activity) with clients and other stakeholders. Responsibility is deliberately and systematically shared across the engaged group to:
While the benefits of working with clients, communities and other stakeholders are numerous, these approaches can be time and resource intensive, especially when managing relationships and expectations, and ensuring effective power sharing and communication. Evidence suggests co-design is the most resource intensive approach.
What does this mean for practice?
As needs and identified issues vary within and across different client, community and stakeholder groups, there is no standard set of steps to follow. However, service managers and program planners can use the following principles to support their implementation:
- Keep it local
Seek to understand if and how your clients’, communities’ and other stakeholders’ needs relate to the program or activity you’re planning; then consider the best approach to working with them. Each group may need to be engaged with separately to ensure meaningful participation.
- Clarify your approach
Once you’ve determined your approach, communicate it clearly to those involved to manage expectations.
- Focus on relationships and access
Relationships are central to these approaches – hone your interpersonal and relationship skills. You should consider equity and remove any access barriers (i.e. language, location, facilities) for those who may experience them.
- Avoid fatigue
At any given time, clients, communities and other stakeholders may be involved with or consulted by multiple organisations. Avoid over-burdening the same groups and agencies and seek to engage with those who may not have had opportunities to participate.
The benefits of working with clients, communities and other stakeholders are achieved in both the process and the outcomes produced. However, working together is not always successful for professionals, communities or stakeholders every time. Applying the principles outlined in this short article can help to reduce resource burden, nurture relationships with communities and provide longer-lasting outcomes for families.
Further reading and related resources
The travel companion: Your guide to working with others for social outcomes
This guide provides further guidance on choosing the right approach to working with others, from defining the purpose to planning and monitoring success.
Partnership practice guide
This VCOSS guide summarises key considerations for collaboration – from preparing to partner, to sustaining the partnership.
The Partnership Brokers Association, based in the UK, provides workbooks, guides and case studies to step professionals through managing a partnership and overcoming challenges.
Partnerships analysis tool
This VicHealth tool helps professionals clarify the purpose of collaboration, reflect on their partnerships and consider opportunities for strengthening them.
Mabels case study
Led by Eastern Community Legal Centre, Mabels is an example of collaboration across multiple sectors to improve service access and client outcomes.
Community engagement resources and guides
The Bang the Table website provides resources, guides and case examples to step professionals through various online and in-person community engagement activities.
Index of Community Engagement Techniques
This Tamarack Institute index describes community engagement techniques across a spectrum of community engagement.
Doing co-design for real: mindsets, methods and movements
The Beyond Sticky Notes website provides resources for professionals with varying levels of experience – from introductory to in-depth step-by-step guides on co-design.
Co-design Resource Bank
This TACSI information hub includes written and digital learning resources on planning and managing co-design activities.
The Our Site project case study
Led by Women with Disabilities Australia, the Our Site project is an example of a website co-designed by women and girls with disabilities.
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