How Do You Engage Communities?

By Sally Hussey

The question “how do you engage a community?” depends on the degree of influence given to the community in a decision-making process. It also depends on when engagement occurs during a policy development cycle.

True to its collaborative exchange, participants shape how they participate. Where traditional, top-down initiatives seek only to inform citizens on an arrived-at policy decision, the lack of attention to a relationship-based model for delivering public services is wanting – a point well recognized globally by current efforts to deepen and expand public participation. Community members are engaged when they play a meaningful role in both the decision-making process and the implementation of projects that affect them. Broadening the role of government organizations to include facilitator and collaborator, for instance, empowers locals and community members. Loosening the hold on a top-down approach also instills trust in community members to meaningfully engage in issues.

Woman having tea on balcony

“Community members are engaged when they play a meaningful role in both the decision-making process and the implementation of projects that affect them.”

What are community engagement models?

Governments and public decision makers who listen to local knowledge, where it feeds back into decisions, facilitate community ownership over outcomes. In this way, community engagement is often depicted as a continuum. This ranges from low-level engagement strategies, such as consultation, to high-level strategies such as community empowerment. Over the last fifty years, international public participation models have evolved to map engagement to show this influence. Sheree Arnstein’s landmark Ladder of Citizen Participation, developed in 1969, while it continues to hold relevance, has been adapted variously to suggest engagement’s evolving process-focus. (See for instance, the work of Marshall Ganz or Gideon Rosenblatt’s The Engagement Pyramid.) More recently, Capire Consultancy’s The Engagement Triangle stems the effect of a generic understanding and misinterpretation of engagement that occurs in organizations. Instead, it identifies desired outcomes based on overarching objectives of informing decisions, building capacity and strengthening relationships between organizations and communities.

Man presenting in a meeting

How do governments engage communities?

The IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum, developed in the late 1990s, with updates by IAP2 Australasia in 2014, is one of the most utilized and applied of international public participation models to describe the level of citizen’s involvement in decision-making processes. It explains the different levels of engagement that organizations can engage their communities, with the furthest right of the spectrum highlighting the greater community influence on decision making. Each level holds out a different promise to the community to which decision makers are held accountable.[/columnhalf][columnhalf]Integrating community engagement models into governance strategies, however, local governments utilize formal engagement processes. (This is different to citizen participation that utilizes informal processes to voice opinions about policies.) Formal or ‘state-sanctioned’ participation initiatives invite the public to engage beyond voting – such as citizen’s assemblies, citizen juries or participatory budgets. Although partaking in the same goal – improving public services and projects – these differ from those activities created by citizens, residents and community members themselves through their shared identities and common interests. What’s more, formal initiatives don’t preclude communities actively shaping processes and outcomes of public decisions in the improvement of provision of services for their community. They can also inform local government-led advocacy.

Elderly couple using an ipad

"Formal or ‘state-sanctioned’ participation initiatives invite the public to engage beyond voting."

Reframing formal participation in efforts toward deliberative democracy, then, facilitates collaborative exchange. This can take the form of citizen assemblies or 21st century town hall meetings and other forms of e-democracy. For depending on when it occurs in any given project, community engagement doesn’t preclude responding to a citizen-led approach. (While to-date most public participation occurs late in policy development cycle, some countries are testing “live” policy issues to deepen public engagement.)

How communities are engaged within a policy development cycle gives government organizations and public decision makers a chance to gain localized insight into community sentiments, values and concerns as well as an in depth view into what communities have to say about issues that affect their neighborhoods, cities, towns and regions. It embodies and deepens the function democracy at the same time it underlines the question, why is community engagement important?

family out for a walk

Download the Community Engagement 101 Guide