By Sally Hussey
With the rise in deepening and expanding public engagement globally, the importance of community engagement has become pivotal for well-functioning, twenty-first century democracies. Constructive relationships between communities and the institutions of government make community engagement not only desirable, but necessary and viable as it is likely to lead to more equitable, sustainable public decisions and improve the liveability of local communities. This is why community engagement is important for individuals, public organisations, and governments alike.
Where traditional, executive-led approaches are ineffective, community engagement is important in its collaborative approach to the design and/or delivery of services. For the complexity of issues in any given community – where traditional approaches have been ineffective if non-inclusive in the extreme – community engagement enables better understanding of communities’ needs and aspirations.
“Community engagement enables better understanding of communities’ needs and aspirations."
Community engagement is important because it is primarily, part of a dialogue where organisations and communities can make decisions to create social capital.
Compelling stories of the importance of community engagement range from creating (or indeed preventing) change in local policies and service provisions that not only enrich everyday lives and liveability of communities, but help shape and envision a community’s future, bringing with it not only wider societal change but global impacts.
Community engagement is important and can lead to improved outcomes for communities when government organisations and public decision-making entities seek out the aspirations, concerns and values of communities, who, in turn, share their aspirations, concerns and values with governing entities. Incorporated into decision-making processes, public decision makers are better informed and better able to meet community needs.
Establishing long standing, effective partnerships between government organisations and communities, too, results in a greater sense of community ownership and an improved uptake of services as they are tailored to the unique aspirations of the community.
Meaningful, inclusive community engagement is important, even critical, to community well being.
Understood through the values of access and inclusivity, where community members are informed and educated on issues at hand, locals are able to contribute meaningfully to engagement and have the capacity to shape those activities. Building on the ideas of empowerment and participation, people’s wellbeing involves participating meaningfully in all aspects of one’s life. Community engagement, then, ensures that community members have access to valued social settings and activities, feel that they are able to contribute meaningfully to those activities, and develop functional capabilities that enable them to participate fully.
By including diverse voices, usually marginalised or overlooked voices are actively empowered within their community to participate in decision making that affects their everyday lives.
Community engagement helps governments improve the efficiency, legitimacy and transparency of their decision making. By embracing and encouraging participation, it enables policy makers to make more informed decisions by engaging with, and carefully mapping out the needs, opinions and visions of local communities on issues that matter to them. It promotes sustainable decisions by recognising and communicating the needs and interests of all participants – including decision makers. This increases acceptance of decisions and community commitment to outcomes as local knowledge from diverse groups shapes and creates inclusive, effective solutions. The flow on effect is increased trust in organisations and governance to make better public decisions.
This is especially vital given the declining trust in governments worldwide, which, coupled with the Smart City agenda, creates an opportunity for community engagement to deliver a transformative form of continuous engagement between citizens and governments.
“Community engagement is important as it takes action to influence stakeholders with government, political or funding power to implement public projects and policies that primarily benefit individual communities and drive social change.”
With an emphasis on collaboration and the promise of influence on decision making, the importance of community engagement is clear as it drives social transformation. It promotes advocacy that not only works to raise awareness, but passionate, locally-informed voices can be heard – especially during election time. As voters, communities have the power to make their voices heard. And elections represent a significant opportunity to drive change. Advocacy campaigns are at their most effective when local governments, municipalities and councils activate communities, mobilising on issues that impact their everyday lives. For it is in the local, placed-based arena that community members can have their most direct impact on policy.
Traditionally, local government advocacy priorities have been determined by executive-led approach – essentially, without community input (and often buoyed by third-party research and data at times, leading to advocacy campaigns that worked to benefit external agencies). Community engagement is important as it takes action to influence stakeholders with government, political or funding power to implement public projects and policies that primarily benefit individual communities and drive social change.
Depending on the types of community engagement, and level of influence given over to communities in a public decision-making process, community engagement strives towards deliberative democracy which facilitates a collaborative exchange regarding a set of policies or actions.
Researchers have observed a pronounced expansion in community organising since the mid 1980s – where they have increasingly become a locus of engagement during governments’ deregulation of power. Broadly speaking, since the 1990s, we have witnessed a rapid expansion in formal, state-based initiatives to facilitate public participation in decision making, where communities are invited to engage beyond voting.
The attendant mistrust or loss of faith in government and information on public policy through traditional and social news channels walks hand in hand with the shift from top-down governance to more horizontally organised governments. Here, all stakeholders of public policy projects – local governments and organisations, businesses, residents and communities – are brought into the decision-making process, nurturing the very democratic idea of community engagement that people should have a say over decisions that impact their everyday lives.
"All stakeholders[...] are brought into the decision-making process, nurturing the very democratic idea of community engagement that people should have a say over decisions that impact their everyday lives."
Increasingly, over recent years, through digital democracy and digital participation in open government and e-democracy, digitisation has spread into policy and decision making. This is coupled with wider social transformations as there is a call for transparency around public decisions and residents and communities are more motivated to weigh in on policies affecting their cities, towns and neighbourhoods.
This is not to overlook the unbridled enthusiasm for technology that has, paradoxically, fuelled the current digital mistrust of tech and big data and the unreliability of information via social media. But, governments now must create intentional interactions that facilitates community engagement. In this way, digital-first engagement has a vital role. While the benefits of online community engagement are manifold in the current global state of digitisation, digital-first engagement supports a continuous democracy and can enhance transparency and trust. For, primarily, digital-first engagement is more efficient – giving community leaders added opportunity to focus on community issues.
Community engagement increases the visibility and understanding of issues and empowers communities to have their say over decisions that affect their lives, their towns, cities and neighbourhoods.
It provides opportunities for community members to contribute to public decision-making processes – and informing and educating communities on policy issues that impact their everyday lives. Through feedback, community engagement enables government and public decision-making organisations to listen and, in turn, demonstrate the impact of community contribution. Community engagement, then, builds deeper, stronger and more trusting relationships between public organisations and communities.