Holly Clark recently had a chance to sit down with Ellis Westwood, Ascentum’s new Director of Project Innovation, to explore his new role, and learn more about his views on the future of public engagement.
1. You have recently been promoted to “Director, Project Innovation”, with Ascentum. Can you give us some context on what this title entails? How is this new position different from your last? What new responsibilities/duties do you have?
The first thing people say when they hear my title is that they’ve never heard anything like it before! For me the new role is about always trying to be creative. It’s about building on tried and tested engagement approaches, but not being afraid to try new techniques or tools. I think the new role reflects my growth at Ascentum over the last five years. It’s an amazing place to learn, work, and have fun. As a Director, I’ll be working directly with clients and delivering projects, while coaching and supporting our really talented staff at Ascentum.
2. What are the highlights of your year, and what do you hope to accomplish in the next year with Ascentum’s clients?
Over the last year, I’ve been involved in some very interesting projects, working with adventurous, creative and smart clients.
One of our recent engagement projects was “Our Health Our Future”, Canada’s first national dialogue on childhood obesity. We used a blend of in-person, online and social media tools to foster conversations across Canada on healthy weights and about how we can all work together to address the growing health problem of childhood obesity. As part of our creative approach, I used social media to foster conversations on Facebook and Twitter about childhood obesity. We engaged hundreds of caregivers, youth and stakeholders across Canada and to hear how childhood obesity affected them and their ideas for making our kids healthier.
So that’s where I’ve come from over the last year. Where do I want to go? Well, I’d like to continue to use social media, to complement the engagement work that we do through in-person and online channels.
3. Why do you think public engagement is important?
I think public engagement is important because it helps organizations make more “sustainable decisions”. These are decisions that are durable and sustainable into the future, developed by involving the people and perspectives that are affected and need to be involved.
At the beginning of my career, when I worked for the federal government, I worked alongside people that were smart and passionate, but at the same time they didn’t have all the answers. For me, engaging the public means providing government and decision makers with those additional perspectives, ideas and experiences from those outside government. It’s these additional sources of evidence that organizations need to make more sustainable decisions on important public policy challenges.
4. You are well known at Ascentum for being very well-versed in social media and new technologies. How do you think we can continue to capitalize on these tools to perform better public engagement?
For me, social media is all a conversation. It’s about people sharing points of view, information and ideas. It’s tools that people can use to co-collaborate and co-create.
So, social media is a natural addition to many public engagement projects. Depending on the project objectives and target communities, social media may not always be suitable for every engagement project. But when it is, we tap into and join the conversations that are already happening or foster new ones aligned with the topics we’re engaging on. These can act as natural complements to other streams of communications we might be doing, such as online deliberation or dialogues.
Social media also allows us to broaden the scope of our engagement. By using social networking tools like Facebook, which has 17 million Canadian subscribers, we can help our clients reach more people, hear more stories, gather more ideas, and ultimately make more sustainable decisions.
5. Based on your experience of social media and its progress thus far, what do you see for the future of public engagement in relation to these new technologies?
I’m really excited about the possible application of social games in public engagement. Imagine if you could use an interactive tool to actually re-design your community park or your neighborhood services on an engagement website? You could choose the design and size of your local community centre. You could redesign the public transit routes that serve your neighborhood.
This idea reminds me of that popular computer game from the 1990s, Sim City. In the future, online engagement could take a similar form. The only difference is that it would be more interactive, more social and you could collaborate with others to co-design solutions to the problems we face in our communities, cities or our country.
6. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your experiences? How do you think this will see you through your future?
I’ve learned a lot over the past five years! But the most important thing is that, to help my clients get the insights they’re looking for, it’s my job to help them ask the right questions.
In planning projects, I always like to start working backwards from the end. I ask my clients, what would success look like? What do you want to know from the people you are engaging? And also, what information do we need to give to participants to make it deliberative, so that they can give you their informed perspectives?
If organizations don’t ask the right questions of the people they are trying to engage, they won’t be able to gather the experiences or ideas they’re looking for, as well as their broader engagement objectives.
Some final thoughts…
It has been and continues to be an amazing experience at Ascentum. Every day, I get to work with really smart people who are passionate about public involvement. I get to work with all kinds of neat clients on interesting and important issues. All of that makes it easy to get up in the mornings and come to work, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming year and the future beyond that.