Community Participation Unlocks Key to Civic Wellbeing

Community participation, or the active involvement of communities in determining their wellbeing, can also function as an indicator of the health of civic life.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis of many dimensions. In the demands it continues to make of communities around the world, the pandemic asks difficult questions, much like the ongoing climate emergency. There is one demand, in particular, that has surfaced: the need for collective responses. The motifs of distance and isolation recur in conversations and action around the pandemic. But equally, community participation, community building, togetherness, and connection remain profoundly relevant. And communities around the world have rallied in many ways to speak to these themes. 

Crisis after crisis has consistently revealed the crucial importance of community participation, of collective responses in unraveling the complex knots that present themselves in these times to decision-makers. At the heart of civic life, the community has a central stake in its own wellbeing, from community participation in climate action to addressing issues around socio-economic distress, to recovering from climate-related disasters and environmental distress to mitigating the multi-dimensional consequences of the pandemic. 

Community participation is increasingly recognized as an essential ingredient in addressing collective objectives and finding solutions that can speak to the scale and the complexity of the questions at hand. For decision-makers looking to successfully tackle the multitude of challenges facing communities, there is much to be gained from unlocking the democratic and transformative potential of engaged communities.   

What is community participation?

Community participation can be defined as the active involvement of communities in projects that serve to solve a community’s issues. The World Health Organization (WHO) has conceptualized community participation as ‘a process by which people are enabled to become actively and genuinely involved in defining the issues of concern to them, in making decisions about factors that affect their lives, in formulating and implementing policies, in planning, developing and delivering services and in taking action to achieve change.’

Carrying an expansive civic heritage, community participation speaks to a broad set of ideas and activities, depending on the context in which it is defined, how it is manifested, and what it seeks to do. 

Community participation can refer to formal and informal, community-led or community-focused collective action, outcome-focused interventions by decision-makers and organizations, or the regulated involvement of communities in service development and delivery. In this way, an event at a local library, a citizen’s group advocating for a cause, a volunteer-run community garden or kitchen, a political movement with specific aims, or mandated public consultation on local planning and infrastructure can each be the site of community participation.

But common to all these ways is the role of the community in addressing collective issues and in decision-making around these themes. The concept of community participation evokes a uniquely civic constellation of relationships, shared values, mutual goals, and various means by which to enact them.

How does civic participation impact society?

Civic participation, or the involvement of people in collective action around their communities, can function as both a component and indicator of the health of civic life. It is intertwined with the health of democracy, which is not just a sum of acts, institutions, and policies but, as philosopher John Dewey saw it, a ‘mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.’ Civic participation is elementary, and its extraordinary potential reaches beyond the voting booth and electoral politics. 

Civic participation commits itself to the idea of democracy as a living thing that needs constant and consistent nourishment. But even as it speaks to the purposes of the activities and institutions that embody democracy, civic participation is not limited to traditional civic institutions or electoral politics. It can take a variety of forms, from volunteerism to electoral participation to active engagement in public consultations, involvement in community projects and communication, to active membership in community associations, fundraising, and community problem-solving. 

Active engagement in civic life can substantially shape relationships between individuals, community, decision-makers, and institutions. Civic participation is closely allied to deliberative democracy, the ideal in which deliberative dialogue, the careful and meaningful consideration of information, experience, and evidence, drives democratic decision-making. Genuine deliberative dialogue thrives in spaces and processes that speak to its values, and online community engagement can create the environment necessary to activate it through effective design.   

Community participation and civic participation are also tied to social capital: the values, resources, and networks that come from the interaction between members of society. Civic participation and social capital have a mutually influential relationship, with social capital bringing relationships and norms into cooperation and participation for collective benefit.

child planting a flower

Civic participation in practice  

Community efforts and civic participation towards mitigating the negative local effects of the pandemic are frequently cropping up around the world. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a growing community of volunteers has been involved with relief efforts, neighborhood mobilizing, awareness campaigns, and logistical assistance. Despite the specter of great risk and uncertainty that has haunted affected communities, people have come together in a variety of ways to express solidarity and contribute to their communities. In this difficult time, local decision-makers have every reason to activate and sustain civic participation and find new ways to keep their communities connected with each other, local government, and agencies. 

Well before the practical realities of the pandemic compelled conversations to move online, civic participation in the digital realm has brought new possibilities to the connected community. Digital engagement has enabled decision-makers to strengthen and widen conversations with communities on the issues that affect them. Complementing face-to-face engagement with the heightened reach and interactive capabilities of dedicated online spaces, online community engagement continues to realize key democratic values across multiple domains. 

For the health sector, community-led patient engagement can re-humanize and transform systems by enabling the community to define its priorities for care and wellbeing.  For communities on the frontlines of emergency management and disaster recovery, online community engagement can support healing with the exchange of crucial information and experiences between communities and decision-makers. For the purposes of strategic long-term planning, online community engagement can bring a diverse and dispersed community together to talk about a collective vision for a range of priorities and aspirations. Public engagement on budgets can help the community and decision-makers understand each other, their fiscal realities, and their mutual goals and expectations.

To unlock the value of civic participation through online community engagement,  planners and practitioners benefit from taking a digital-first approach to having open and actionable conversations that matter. A digital-first approach to engagement builds online engagement into the consultation from the onset, with careful consideration of objectives and design. Certainly, digital engagement is now an essential component of civic participation, with a significant role to play in keeping communities connected over new and necessary distances.

Learn more about how cohesive, connected communities are better equipped to tackle their challenges and why decision-makers should address community and civic participation in managing the COVID-19 crisis.

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