Community engagement is so much more than ticking boxes, it brings together individual perspectives to create better outcomes for everyone involved – we'll tell you how.
Community engagement is a process of involving the public in decision-making, with the goal of creating informed actions and shared visions.
The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) more formally defines it as: ‘any process that involves the public in problem-solving or decision making and uses public input to make better decisions.’
Community engagement allows community members to contribute to decisions and actions by creating an environment where feedback is considered and embraced. It is based on a framework of guiding principles, strategies, and approaches that respect the rights of all community members to be informed, consulted, involved, and empowered in relation to decisions and outcomes that impact them. It should foster trust and productive relationships so that sustainable decision-making and effective governance are possible.
These similar terms float around our space quite frequently – engagement, participation, community, civic – it’s all very same-same but is there really a difference between these?
The word “community” describes groups of people, whether they are stakeholders, interest groups, or citizen groups. A community may be based in a geographic location or formed around people of similar interests, affiliations, or identities.
Community engagement refers to the intention and action of organizations to reach out, facilitate interactions, and create feedback channels with a community. Governing bodies and organizations practice community engagement when they need to make a change or regulatory decision that will impact the community.
Civic or citizen engagement is the way in which citizens engage with their governing organizations and is a core element of democracy. Similar to community engagement, civic or citizen engagement is intended to improve the quality of life in one’s community by addressing wider social issues of public concern.
Public participation or public engagement is a broader term that describes any way in which the public engages with governments and organizations. Interestingly, the level of engagement or participation is dependent on the role an organization wants the public to have; this role helps determine how much influence the community has over planning or decision-making. IAP2 identifies five levels of public participation in their Spectrum of Public Participation.
Community engagement brings together individual perspectives to create better outcomes. It combines different ideas, ways of working, experiences, knowledge, and expertise to help decision-makers deliver sustainable economic, environmental, social, and cultural outcomes. An engaged community is a thriving community. It is more equitable, innovative, creative, resilient, productive.
Thousands of years ago, our ancestors would have needed to share ideas and make decisions as a group to survive. The same is true today. We have evolved as a species to make tools, tell stories, share knowledge, and work together to achieve great things.
Community engagement is important because it enables a collective consideration of what’s possible for a group of people. An organization might have a vision for a community, but it’s essential that they speak to the stakeholders that will be impacted by those changes and are critical in the materialization of their aspirations.
When organizations don’t engage with communities, they run the risk of hitting unforeseen roadblocks and blowing out their budgets. However, the greatest expense is opportunity cost.
Without tapping into the expansive knowledge pool in a community, leaders and policy-makers might not deliver the best long-term outcome. This might impact their ability to win votes, investors, or customers in the future. But more importantly, it can be costly to the environment, culture, economy, and liveability of a community. The sum of parts is truly greater than the whole in community engagement.
Community engagement isn’t just about ticking boxes.
It helps us to determine the future of a place. When anyone is intervening with a community, imagining an alternative future, or sparking change, they can invite external input to ensure that the best outcome is reached. When a diverse-cross section of government, developers, communities, and people start working together, we can unlock innovation and creative energy – creating places and spaces that people are deeply connected to. It’s not just about the built form of a city or the distribution of its road networks and open spaces. It’s also the culture, attitude, and aspirations that you are trying to embed into a group of interconnected people and their daily lives.
By harnessing the power of collective intelligence and embracing a culture of co-design, community engagement can help us achieve many things:
Develop meaningful solutions to complex problems
Create cohesion and connectivity
Empower effective governance and accountability
Foster diversity and social inclusion
Embed Indigenous perspectives and cultural identity into our places
Enable self-identification with communities
Drive sustainability initiatives forward
Mobilize resources and create responsiveness to change
Drive collaboration, validate ideas, and create a shared vision
Improve community health and well-being
Community engagement relies on a number of key pillars:
Effective communication ensures that the community understands your ideas and trusts your decision-making capability.
Honest relationships encourage genuine input and active involvement. If people trust your policies, projects, and decision-making processes they are more likely to be on board with your vision and provide helpful feedback.
Holistic strategies turn ideas into action. They align innovative community input with effective delivery programs and implementation plans.
Inclusive engagement makes sure that everyone in the community has an opportunity to participate and engage. It breaks down the barriers that prevent people from participating and ensures that engagement is equitable, accessible, empowering, and safe for all.
One aspect of inclusive community engagement is ensuring these diverse groups trust you, as you can’t expect everyone to be willing to engage so freely. By establishing consistent, transparent dialogue and utilizing a platform that promotes safety and moderation, then you can navigate any challenging crossroads far more effectively. But, make sure you do your research and take the time to understand the various cultures and minorities you want to encourage to get involved.
One way to instantly create a more accessible environment for community engagement is by developing a hybrid engagement strategy. By giving your community the opportunity to participate at public, in person, events, as well as online, then you are allowing a much wider audience to be included.
Online community engagement is any form of community engagement that is facilitated in a digital environment. It is often used to complement traditional, face-to-face engagement practices.
Digital community engagement platforms and tools provide 24/7 access and increase reach in a cost-effective way. Due to their convenience, they can bring engagement professionals together with hard-to-reach communities and bring marginalized voices into the conversation.
Traditional, or face-to-face engagement activities can be dominated by small groups of participants who have the time and means to attend. They can also be biased towards the loudest voices in the room, whereas online engagement provides a safe and accessible place for all members of the community to contribute to the conversation.
Online community engagement is also responsive and transparent. Decision-makers can access and respond to feedback in real time, while the community can be exposed to the ideas and perspectives of others.
Some examples of online engagement tools include:
A community engagement strategy and action plan is a detailed outline of an organization’s key commitments and actions to achieve its objectives and continually improve its practice.
It should combine big-picture, visionary goals with step-by-step detailed approaches to engage the community from the start of an initiative. If focuses on quality, effectiveness, and process planning, as well as tailored engagement for the issue, level of participation to be achieved, timeframe, and range of stakeholders affected.
There are a number of questions you should think through to ensure your plan is effective.
What level of participation do you want to achieve?
How will you identify your stakeholders and communicate with them?
What stage in the engagement process are you targeting?
What resources can you use?
Are there any limitations?
How will you gather timely feedback and communicate next steps?
What engagement tools and methods will you use?
Is your engagement process inclusive?
This is our favourite community planning toolkit to help you with the process.
There are four main steps to follow to put a community engagement strategy on its best path to success.
Make sure the purpose of your consultation is clear and determine whether key decision-makers will be interested in the community feedback you plan to gather.
From the beginning, you should identify key stakeholders, define clear objectives and outcomes, understand your audience, and the right communication methods for interacting with them.
Once you have buy-in, start organizing the resources and information you will need to execute the project. Make sure you have access to all of the engagement tools and resources you will need and develop a strong marketing and communications plan to make sure you can reach your target audience.
This is the phase in which you start interacting with your community stakeholders and you should be continuously evaluating the outcomes of your efforts. You can monitor metrics such as reach, engagement rate, and sentiment to determine if your consultation is on track or should be adjusted.
All of the feedback data that you have gathered needs to be analyzed at the end of the project. Your analysis should identify common themes and perspectives to inform the priorities moving forward.