Liberate your Inner Citizen – Step-by-step guide to Appreciative Inquiry

Liberate your Inner Citizen – Step-by-step guide to Appreciative Inquiry

Are you in a position where you’re part of any kind of community engagement process, especially PACT (Police and Communities Together)?

Are you tired of attending meetings where all that is discussed is what is ‘broken’ with demands for, ‘someone to do something about it?’

Do you wonder why your PACT and community meetings appear to generate actions for the police and other partner agencies for issues that members of the community should be more than capable of dealing with?

PACT style community engagement

Time to ditch PACT? Lose the, ‘You Said, We Did’ Top Table approach to community engagement?

Then you might be ready for a shift in your approach to a problem-solving model known as Appreciative Inquiry.

The strength of this approach lies in the power of the questions used to probe and explore the best of what has been and is, so that an aspirational vision of what can be can be constructed in the minds of participants. From here the facilitator can ask further questions to enable the participants to come up with the organisation needed before they can take the next steps required to make their vision a reality.

It’s a method of problem solving that focuses on what is already working and what is positive in groups or communities, as opposed to a relentless analysis of the causes of a problem that rarely gets past a number of best guess solutions that may or may not resolve the problem.

In my experience police officers often struggle with the concept of Appreciative Inquiry, however, once they experience the shift in mindset it generates they tend to warm to it. I’ve often wondered why this is the case? Could it be the target mindset that has been part of a police officer’s DNA for the past few decades? Where police officer’s and their team’s performance has been measured through the use of targets for reducing crime and ASB, invariably measured in reductions in what communities don’t want? For example, ‘by xx date, we will have achieved a 7% reduction in ….’

The thing is, it’s hard to imagine a positive future based on less of something that you don’t want. For community members in particular, it’s hard to imagine what their world will look and feel like when this target is achieved? For example, if there are 20% less burglaries in the future, does this mean it’s still acceptable for there to be some burglaries as long as there are 20% less of them? Having less of something that is already broken is hard to imagine.

An affirmative statement around burglary might be something along the lines of, ‘by 2020 we will live in a neighbourhood where everyone knows and looks out for each other each other, and where any opportunities to commit burglary, such as open and insecure windows, are spotted and rectified through positive neighbourly interventions.’

What do you think? I would suggest that most people would be able to picture this as a vision for the future as opposed to a 20% reduction in burglaries.

So, at your next PACT, instead of presenting your achievements against targets (those that attend aren’t really interested anyway), or starting a discussion on how residents can better stop burglaries combined with piles of leaflets (they’ve heard it all before and it doesn’t work) why don’t you start with the above affirmative statement? And then (with warning as this will feel different for them) take the community members (including service providers) through an Appreciative Inquiry:

Appreciative Inquiry

Spot the service provider! Imagine a police community meeting where people who haven’t met each other yet come together to explore their own future?

Appreciative Inquiry is a model based on the power of questions, the better crafted they are for the group you are with the more powerful the experience will be.

Discovery phase

Start with an affirmative topic such as the above and then move onto asking questions to elicit responses that begin the journey to developing a vision for the future.

Questions like:

What do you love most about living around here?

What are you most proud of in your community?

Describe a time when you really felt like you belonged here

What stands out as the time when you felt involved in this community? What was your contribution?

What do you value the most about living in this community?

There are a variety of different methods you can use to capture this information so that it has meaning for the participants before you move onto:

Dream phase

Using the best of what has been and is (described in Discovery phase by participants):

What would this community be like of it continued to build upon its strengths and fully achieved all its aspirations?

Imagine your community five years from now when everything is just as you wished it would be. How are people connected? What forms of citizenship are they engaged in?

In five years time, what types of activities are people taking part in to support the community? What groups have they formed to support each other or to promote activities that are beneficial to the community?

In five years time, what would the relationship look and feel like between the likes of the police, healthcare, education, council and citizens in the community?

In five years time, what activities would citizens be taking part in that they are uniquely able to do for themselves or with some support?

In five years time, what type of function will the police, healthcare, education, council and other ‘public sector’ organisations be providing?

There are a number of other questions that can be asked of the participants to help them generate their positive vision for the future. The key here, especially with public servants who are used to ‘target world,’ is to keep the group away from a vision where there is less of something that is broken and wrong. It’s hard to imagine what this looks and feels like and doesn’t help with the next part, which is the:

Design phase

In this part of the inquiry, the facilitator asks questions to enable the group to design the organisation and its structure that will make their vision become a reality. This is an opportunity for the group to challenge the status quo and organise change from the grass roots of the frontline.

What is currently working well that will enable your vision to become a reality?

What might need adapting?

What new structures are needed?

What are the new groups within the community that will need to be formed? 

You can also include questions around what communities are uniquely able to do on their own, what they can do with support from service providers and what service providers must do themselves as a result of their specialist skills and knowledge.

Destiny phase

In a deficit based, cause analysis approach; this is where actions would be created and allocated to try and make something less broken and wrong. In Appreciative Inquiry the facilitator avoids the temptation to tell the group what they need to do next as the actions are generated by them and as a result, are more likely to be followed through.

What small steps can you take now to achieve your vision?

How will you maintain progress?

How will you know when you are succeeding (you might need to explain the difference between performance measures / targets and outcome measures)?

At the next meeting the small steps taken can be discussed and explored as part of a new Discovery phase, and so the cycle continues.

Appreciative Inquiry Oxford CSP

No Top Table? Oxford CSP giving Appreciative Inquiry a go

So there you go, a step-by-step guide to the practical application of Appreciative Inquiry. The thing about this model is that you can’t break it and the worse that can happen is that those attending your meetings aren’t bored and frustrated – instead community members get to take charge of their own destiny alongside service providers who are there to support them, not to do everything for them.

And for those who might tell you that what you’re doing isn’t proper Appreciative Inquiry? In my view, this is not a movement and it’s not a, ‘if you’re not doing it by the book then it’s not Appreciative Inquiry,’ model. For me, Appreciative Inquiry is more about a mindset shift from a focus on what is broken to a focus on what is and will continue to work. It’s more of a philosophy than a set of rules, where the worse that can happen is you liberate the inner citizen from the public servant and enable members of the community to do what they have always been able to do if presented with the opportunity.

Where’s the risk in that? Go on, experience the shift – give it a go!

Please get in touch and let me know how you get on, and if you want any free advice or to ask any questions, please drop me a line, it would be my pleasure to be of service.




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