By Sally Hussey
Community engagement is based on the democratic idea that everyone who is affected by an issue that impacts their community should have a say in the decision making around it. It, moreover, holds the promise that public participation can influence decisions that affect the provision of services, future visions and sustainability of our communities.
Although there is no commonly agreed to community engagement definition and the use of the term varies widely (sharing in notions of consultation, participation, collaboration and empowerment), community engagement captures its meaning in mutual decision making. People, governments and organizations work collaboratively to create – and realize – sustainable visions for their community’s future. For governments and organizations, it’s about working with, and listening to, communities to build long term relationships and develop meaningful solutions to complex issues. By deepening these relationships, ideally, the value of inclusivity is central, where government entities create dialogue with the very diversity of their communities.
In recognizing the needs and aspirations of all participants, community engagement promotes the idea that, through intentional interactions between government organizations and communities, community members can – and do – influence policy making. That is, community engagement’s promise is to better engage community to help make better public decisions. It is, thereby, both an orientation toward the importance of community members’ lived experience to influence interactions between government organizations and communities, and an approach that guides the process of those interactions.
Community engagement seeks to engage community to achieve sustainable outcomes, equitable decision-making processes, and deepen relationships and trust between government organisations and communities.
At times interchangeable with citizen participation, community engagement differs primarily in the divergent roles that community members and public decision makers play. Community engagement requires intentional interactions between communities and public decision makers, whereas citizen participation is mobilized by – and for – citizens and community groups.
Public participation, on the other hand, takes into account the full range of activities that people undertake to shape policy outcomes – from citizen-led to state-sanctioned. Engaging with structures and organizational bodies of democracy, this includes everything from voting and lobbying to participating in demonstrations.
But although a political practice, public participation is a path to citizen empowerment critical to well-functioning democracies – particularly relevant in the twenty-first century’s declining democracy globally.
Increasingly, public participation has become vitally important with commitments to improve its role in policy decision making globally. Indeed, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – created using unprecedented participation involving more than 7.5 million people from over 190 countries –embeds inclusive democratic participation in the Sustainable Development Goals.
“Community engagement requires intentional interactions between communities and public decision makers.”
Emphasis on the lived experience of community members taking a front seat and local knowledges inflecting decision-making processes, challenges a top-down approach to public decision making. In demonstrating that community contribution matters, public participation challenges the linear, or one-way relationship between government organizations and communities and promotes productive, durable change through, among other things, deliberative dialogue. (In this way, public participation is important even if it doesn’t directly influence policy decisions as it can produce new, localized knowledge that generates information that can shift government policy agendas.)
By contrast, community engagement provides participants with information they need to engage in a meaningful way with policy issues and communicates, via feedback, how their input affects public decisions. It builds and sustains relationships between communities and government entities into the future.
“Community engagement provides participants with information they need to engage in a meaningful way.”
On a manifest level, traditional and digital engagement, or what we call digital-first engagement, implies the way we engage communities. Traditional, “in person” or what is commonly called “face to face” community engagement can take the form of citizen’s juries, citizen’s assemblies or public meetings and consultations, for instance. These connect people and build relationships in a hands-on environment while accessing information necessary for community members to have their say on the issues at hand.
Digital-first community engagement can include, among other things, participatory forums, online community panels and digital storytelling, enabling deeper questions to be asked of the issues at hand. While the opportunities of digital-first engagement approach are many – including a flexible environment, inclusion of a diversity of voices and expansive reach – both methods are essential to connect communities with decision-making processes.
At a more latent level, these differing types are often integrated in an engagement process that works within an engagement framework. Governments and organizations utilize engagement frameworks, or models, that use traditional and digital engagement within 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 the types of activities created by citizens, residents and community members themselves through their shared identities and common interests. But, as we see when we ask, ‘how do you engage communities?’, formal initiatives don’t preclude communities actively shaping processes and outcomes of public decisions in the improvement of provision of services for their community.