Community Engagement, Public Participation, Civic Engagement – Let’s define these terms


What comes to mind when someone asks, ‘what is community engagement’?

Community engagement is a very broad term that can have a very different meaning based on different contexts, organizations or industries.

“It depends on the geography and the audience – Australia, the UK and USA all use different terms, with very subtle differences between them, but essentially they are the same thing. “Engagement” also means different things between industries” Don Sharples – Altometer Business Intelligence.

“Engagement is just another English word, so you have to be aware of the context it is used in. The under-used meaning of any variant of “engagement” is where it means people ‘doing’ rather than just talking. In this way “civic engagement’ can mean interactions with organizations, governments and each other to ‘do’ stuff. Examples of this could be using a public transport app to find the best way to where you are going, going to a local event, participating in crowdfunding a great cause, or sharing your car with your neighbors” adds Don.

Mayke Deuss, Digital Community Coordinator at VicRoads also comments on her thoughts’ surrounding the theme of “engagement”.

“The difference for me sits mainly in the words ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’. Engagement sounds more inclusive and to me it indicates that you’re part of a long-term process. Whereas the word participation creates a bit more distance, you participate in something but you have no influence on the process itself.”

Keeping these thoughts’ in mind, let’s take a look at what different sources suggest about the theme of community public participation.

Civic Engagement

The New York Times took an Excerpt from the Civic Responsibility and High Education, Oryx Press, 2000 for the definition of civic engagement.

“Working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”

Research by Youth Gov suggests civic engagement involves, “working to make a difference in the civic life of one’s community and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.

  1. Civic engagement includes both paid and unpaid forms of political activism, environmentalism, and community and national service.
  2. Volunteering, national service, and service-learning are all forms of civic engagement.”

So are these definitions trying to show us that civic engagement is a more inclusive and broad term?

Community Consultation

Randwick City Council discusses community consultation in their report, Community Consultation Principles and Consultation Planning Guide. According to the document, Community Consultation is:

“Part of the two-way relationship where Council and the community exchange information and feedback on issues, and when Council uses active processes to involve the community and seek their views on a project”

Simply put, community consultation usually occurs when the public is asked for an opinion about an upcoming, current or past issues.

Community Engagement

A descriptive article by Graeme Stuart reveals,

“There is no widely accepted definition of community engagement and the meaning can vary in different contexts.”

Graeme’s article goes through the definitions of community engagement according to different contexts. For example, a study by Latrobe City, suggests Local Council define community engagement in the context of decision making and planning.

“Community engagement is a broad term that covers the interactions between Council, Latrobe City communities (which could be towns or other locations or groups of people with a common interest or identity) and other stakeholders. Community engagement allows community members to actively contribute to Council decisions and actions by creating an inclusive environment in which community feedback is embraced, considered and acted upon. It serves as a response to increasing community concern about low levels of trust and confidence in government and addresses the escalating expectation that all levels of government be responsive to the community, accountable for levels of service and spending. Community engagement is also about engaging with our community to provide access to a greater range of solutions – The collective wisdom of the community can help Council to achieve the vision and aspirations of our community.”

Graeme found the local government definition of community engagement is contrasted to other definitions which suggest there is a greater emphasis on the two-way process and/or the role of community engagement in areas besides planning and decision making.

“It is not simply about sharing information, or listening to opinions via a survey or focus group, it is about partnership with communities to engage them in joint decision making. Inevitably this leads to empowerment which is not something that can be given to a community but something that can emerge when conditions are conducive to its emergence,” Says Carson, in the Journal of Community Engagement – Beyond Tokenism. Incite, 29(3), 10.

In his “Definitions of Community Engagement” article, Graeme also discusses; how universities define the term, the dangers of building unrealistic expections about community engagement, the United Nations Brisbane Declaration principles of community engagement, its importance and the IAP2 spectrum and more.

Community Participation

A chapter from Europa describes community participation can be, “loosely defined as the involvement of people in a community in projects to solve their own problems. People cannot be forced to ‘participate’ in projects which affect their lives but they should be given the opportunity where possible.”

Wendy Sarkissian’s study found a similar result, outlining there is no hard and fast definition of ‘participation.’ In the planning supportive physical environment. Wendy suggests, “The term community participation, rather than consultation indicates an active role for the community, leading to significant control over decisions. North American literature almost exclusively uses the term citizen participation, rather than community consultation. It is often contrasted with ‘citizen action’, which is seen as being at the opposite end of a continuum, defined as an activity ‘initiated and controlled by citizens for purposes that they determine’.

Public Engagement

According to Intellitics, public engagement involves the “process that brings people together to address issues of common importance, to solve shared problems, and to bring about positive social change. Effective public engagement invites average citizens to get involved in deliberation, dialogue and action on public issues that they care about. And, it helps leaders and decision makers better understand the perspectives, opinions, and concerns of citizens and stakeholders.”

The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement says not to look into the definition of Public Engagement too narrowly. “Public engagement is a term that is widely used in a variety of sectors, from arts and heritage to science policy and local government.”

The University of Cambridge agrees with this opinion. “There are a number of purposes that public engagement activity can serve: these can be described as inspiring, consulting and collaborating.”

What are these opinions’ telling us?

Public engagement is typically a broad term used for participation activities.

Public Participation

The United States Environmental Protection Agency says “Public Participation can be any process that directly engages the public in decision-making and gives full consideration to public input in making that decision.

Public participation is a process, not a single event. It consists of a series of activities and actions by a sponsor agency over the full lifespan of a project to both inform the public and obtain input from them. Public participation affords stakeholders (those that have an interest or stake in an issue, such as individuals, interest groups, communities) the opportunity to influence decisions that affect their lives.”

What’s the most common “community engagement” term you use?

Do you tend to use a particular term more than others? Or do you use different terms depending on the project or situation? Let us know in the comments below.

Enjoyed this article? Check out our article 7 common internal engagement roadblocks for advice on what to do when time frames are tight and resources are limited, community engagement (and not the legislated ‘exhibition period’) is viewed as something that can be cut and where time can be bought.

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