A government’s ability to meaningfully connect with and engage everyday people can dramatically help or hinder their ability to protect and improve the health of communities.

We know that partnering with consumers and communities was critical to government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example in ensuring compliance with restrictions and progressing the vaccine rollout to hesitant populations. We also know that COVID-19 is having a more devastating impact on consumers and communities facing social inequality, with poorer outcomes experienced by those most disadvantaged. This points to the historically inequitable nature of consumer and community engagement in government’s approach to public health and highlights the urgent need for change.

As such, HIC welcomes the release of Victoria’s first ever Public Engagement Framework. The Framework is a welcome and timely addition to the Victorian Government’s approach to interacting with the community.

The Government’s commitment to best practice

We are really pleased to see that the Framework includes actions often overlooked in community consultation and engagement. This includes:

Assessing existing feedback

It’s important to determine if there have been past community engagements or consultations that are currently underway that learnings can be drawn from. This helps to avoid ‘’consultation fatigue’’ which is particularly relevant to community leaders and advocacy groups representing marginalised communities who are being asked more and more frequently to engage in consultation processes whilst seeing little improvement for their communities.

Building ongoing partnerships

Finding opportunities for partnerships or long-term relationships with community groups enables interactions that are mutually beneficial. A successful partnership is evident when the priorities of the community are met alongside those of government.

Not rushing the process

Too often community consultations seem to come as an afterthought which fuels a “tick box” mentality. Allowing reasonable time to design engagements with generous lead-in periods demonstrates commitment to giving a platform to those who rarely have their voice heard. This is more important than ever as recent findings from PwC Australia’s Citizen Survey 2022 show that 70% of Australians are eager to engage in the development of government services.

Giving consumers choice

Creating multiple ways to engage means giving people choice in how they would like to participate. Designing consultations that are accessible and responsive to different preferences is critical to engaging a broader cross-section of the population. Low levels of health literacy should not exclude consumers from the engagement process and there needs to be more emphasis on lowering the barriers to participation.

Shared decision-making

Providing opportunities for collaborative decision-making with the public and priority communities means making decisions together. This re-distributes the balance of power and moves us up Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation towards citizen control.

Closing the feedback loop

Reporting back to those who were involved in the public engagement builds trust and promotes transparency. This is about “closing the loop’’ – that is, letting people who were consulted know the findings and what’s going to happen as a result. The Citizen Survey 2022 shows that overall trust in government is 62% higher amongst those who have given feedback and received a response about ‘next steps’.

Working together to drive better public engagement

There is a big difference between designing and implementing a framework. HIC has years of experience in operationalising the principles that underpin the Framework and understands how difficult it is to convert good intentions into best practice. We also know that organisations that are committed to consumer engagement struggle with the key challenges of ensuring that their diverse communities aren’t left outside the conversation. We are here to support the Government’s efforts to put the Framework in to practice and make the health system truly community orientated.

We are already part of the solution regarding the following key activities that are highlighted in the Framework:

1. Training staff in engagement practices

We are experts in building the capacity of individuals and organisations to better engage with communities. We deliver training workshops, coaching and mentoring on topics like engaging with priority communities and designing accessible and inclusive consultations.

We have supported over 3000 consumers and practitioners through consumer training over the past five years.

2. Working with advocacy groups

As a trusted advocate for the consumer voice, we consistently contribute to government consultations and public engagement efforts focused on the health sector. Facilitating community engagement consultations to ensure we are well-informed on consumer opinions and sentiment on public health matters is part of our core business.

We have engaged over 2,500 consumers through online forums in the past year.

3. Promoting engagement opportunities through consumer group channels

We have a large network of consumers that we communicate with regularly through our Consumers Connect newsletter, Consumers Connect Facebook group, and social media platforms. We help government departments and other organisations to find consumers to participate in their engagement processes. We ensure that engagement opportunities get to the people that government needs to hear from most.

We have an online network of over 4,000 active consumers.

4. Developing innovative approaches to reach vulnerable and seldom heard consumers

While HIC uses conventional engagement tools such as surveys and focus groups, we also practice and continue to explore innovative tools including social media, on-line forums, kitchen table conversations and vox-pop street interviews to access those who aren’t inclined to participate in formal processes.

Time to act

Effective community engagement is critical to good policy development, successful implementation, avoiding unintended outcomes, and facilitating community uptake. With the Framework in place, now is the time for action.

To collaborate on your consumer and community engagement initiatives or explore training and development opportunities contact consumersconnect@hic.org.au.