Definitions of community engagement

[Post updated: 14 February 2017]

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There is no widely accepted definition of community engagement and the meaning can vary in different contexts. The following are some definitions of community engagement mainly in the context vertical community engagement, particularly in relation to planning and decision making.

Although Moore et al. (2016), discuss community engagement as a “key strategy for improving outcomes for Australian children and their families” (p. 19) and discuss literature which have quite broad definitions of community engagement, they ultimately define it in terms of planning and decision-making:

A process whereby a service system:

  • proactively seeks out community values, concerns and aspirations;
  • incorporates those values, concerns and aspirations into a decision-making process or processes; and
  • establishes an ongoing partnership with the community to ensure that the community’s priorities and values continue to shape services and the service system. (p. 7)

In the forestry industry, Dare, Schirmer, and Vanclay (2008) describe community engagement as:

A wide range of activities in which stakeholders exchange information and/or negotiate mutually acceptable actions. These actions range from providing simple information signs on plantation boundaries to establishing multi-stakeholder dialogues that lead to joint action on issues such as game management or road funding (p. 2).

Many local councils also define community engagement in the context of planning and decision making. Take for instance Latrobe City (2015):

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. (p. 4)

Other definitions, place a greater emphasis on two-way processes and/or the role of community engagement in areas besides planning and decision making. Carson (2008) explains:

What interests me as a researcher, a consultant, an advocate and a teacher is community engagement that is not tokenistic. 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 (p. 10).

Recently there has been an increasing interest in community engagement by universities involving partnerships and two-way engagement. Holland and Ramaley (2008), quoting Carnegie (2006) suggest:

“Community Engagement describes the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity” (Carnegie 2006). Note the emphasis on mutual benefits, knowledge exchange, and an expectation of partnerships that create reciprocity among participants (p. 34).

Wallis (2006), the president of the Australian Universities Community Engagement Alliance, argues that community engagement is more than “community participation, community consultation, community service and community development” and is better defined as “a two-way relationship leading to productive partnerships that yield mutually beneficial outcomes” (p. 2).

WA Health (2007) emphasises the role of community engagement in decision making by suggesting that community engagement is:

The process by which the aspirations, concerns, needs and values of citizens and communities are incorporated in government, non-government and private sector decision making, planning service delivery and evaluation. This partnership process aims to make better decisions that are supported by the community and result in better outcomes for both the community and the agencies (p. 4).

Chappell (2008) warns, however, of the danger of building unrealistic expectations about community engagement, particularly in relation to consultation.

Consultation has been used as a general term to describe how local councils approach communities about decisions that affect them. This general use has the potential to create unrealistic expectations and confusion. Most commonly, communities become disengaged when they are asked to provide input on a decision that has already been determined. If a decision has been made, the community needs to be informed about how and why it was made and not have raised expectations that they are being consulted for their input on a final decision. There will always be times when councils must make decisions without input from communities as part of their governance role. There will be other times when it will be relevant to increase the public impact on a decision by working at the more participatory levels of involve, collaborate or empower (p. 8).

The Department of Primary Industries (2008) in Victoria also emphasises the importance of ensuring that community engagement is more than public relations meeting predetermined outcomes.

Community engagement involves interactions between identified groups of people and involves processes that are linked to problem solving or decision making where community input is used to make better decisions. Communities, therefore, should not be engaged to obtain consensus or agreement about a predetermined position. In such instances it is not engagement that is occurring but, rather, a public relations exercise where information is distributed. Community engagement involves a decision that is yet to be made over which the community can have some influence….

Effective community engagement depends on mutual trust, respect and effective communication between industry and the community. Community engagement can be considered a ‘live’ process that may need to change or evolve as projects develop; it also needs to be flexible and transparent in order to respond to community needs (“What is community engagement?” paras. 1, 3).

Sarkissian et al (2009) argues that community engagement can be:

Believed to be ‘real’ when participants can determine the outcome and therefore ‘bogus’ when the outcome is determined elsewhere. The term community participation, rather than consultation, indicates an active role for the community, leading to significant control over decisions.

In considering the extent of participation in community engagement the spectrum of public participation by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) is a useful tool. It identifies increasing levels of public participation: Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate, Empower. For each level they identify a public participation goal and a promise to the public. Although “inform” is not really community engagement or participation, it is a necessary prerequisite for community engagement. It is not enough in its own right. Processes where the community are passive recipients of information, e.g., an advertising campaign, are not community engagement. Community engagement needs to be a two way process. As Lyn Carson (in Susskind & Carson, 2008) suggests

When I use the Spectrum, I find myself describing it as a continuum, then saying I won’t spend any time talking about the left-hand columns. Of course, it’s important to inform constituents, and open governments should do this routinely, but I dismiss that column in particular as unworthy of my attention in any discussion about public participation (p.69).

The United Nations Brisbane Declaration (International Conference on Engaging Communities, 2005) not only emphasises a two way process, but also includes some helpful principles:

We, representatives of countries and communities, including indigenous peoples, international institutions, national, state and local governments, academic institutions, and business and civil society organisations from across the world, participating in the International Conference on Engaging Communities, held in Brisbane, Australia, from 15-17 August 2005….

8. Recognise that community engagement is a two way process:

  • by which the aspirations, concerns, needs and values of citizens and communities are incorporated at all levels and in all sectors in policy development, planning, decision-making, service delivery and assessment; and
  • by which governments and other business and civil society organisations involve citizens, clients, communities and other stakeholders in these processes….

13. Endorse the core principles of integrity, inclusion, deliberation and influence in community engagement:

  • Integrity – when there is openness and honesty about the scope and purpose of engagement;
  • Inclusion – when there is an opportunity for a diverse range of values and perspectives to be freely and fairly expressed and heard;
  • Deliberation – when there is sufficient and credible information for dialogue, choice and decisions, and when there is space to weigh options, develop common understandings and to appreciate respective roles and responsibilities;
  • Influence – when people have input in designing how they participate, when policies and services reflect their involvement and when their impact is apparent.

In the context of health, South and Phillips (2014) and Attree et al. (2011), also recognise that community engagement involves more than planning and decision making. South and Phillips  suggest community engagement can be framed as:

  1. A delivery mechanism whereby community members deliver a standardised intervention or components for example, communication of healthy eating messages;
  2. A direct intervention where lay knowledge, skills and social networks are used to improve individual health for example, provision of peer support;
  3. Collective action on social or environmental determinants of health, often a feature of empowerment approaches;
  4. A means to achieve greater community influence in the health system, as part of equitable and democratic governance. (p. 693)

Attree et al. (2011) include engagement in the delivery or initiatives:

[Community engagement] refers to community involvement in decision-making and in the design, governance and delivery of initiatives which aim to address the wider social determinants of population health and health inequalities. (p. 251)

Finally, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (2015) provide a brief definition of community engagement that allows for a broad understanding and emphasises the collective aspect of community engagement:

A planned process with the specific purpose of working with identified groups of people, whether they are connected by geographic location, special interest or affiliation, to address issues affecting their well-being. Linking the term ‘community’ to ‘engagement’ serves to broaden the scope, shifting the focus from the individual to the collective, with associated implications for inclusiveness, to ensure consideration is given to the diversity that exists within any community (p. 3).

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. Posts in the What is…? series (Key concepts related to working with families and communities)
  2. An introduction to community engagement
  3. A community engagement reading list
  4. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  5. Updating a course on community engagement
  6. Ethics and community engagement

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

References

Attree, P., French, B., Milton, B., Povall, S., Whitehead, M., & Popay, J. (2011). The experience of community engagement for individuals: a rapid review of evidence. Health & Social Care in the Community, 19(3), 250-260. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2524.2010.00976.x Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2524.2010.00976.x

Carson, L. (2008). Community Engagement – Beyond Tokenism. Incite, 29(3), 10. Available from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/inCiteALIA/2008/43.html

Chappell, B. (2008). To Engage or Consult?: That is the question! Incite, 29(3), 8. Available from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/inCiteALIA/2008/41.html

Dare, M., Schirmer, J., & Vanclay, F. (2008). A brief guide to effective community engagement in the Australian plantation sector Hobart: Cooperative Research Centre for Forestry. Available from http://www.crcforestry.com.au/publications/downloads/TR181-Dare-community-engagement.pdf.

Department of Primary Industries (2008). Community engagement: Guidelines for mining and mineral exploration in Victoria. Melbourne: Victorian Department of Primary Industries. Available from http://earthresources.vic.gov.au/earth-resources-regulation/licensing-and-approvals/minerals/guidelines-and-codes-of-practice/community-engagement-guidelines-for-mining-and-mineral-exploration.

Department of Sustainability and Environment (2005). Effective Engagement: building relationships with community and other stakeholders. Book 1: An introduction to engagement. East Melbourne: Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment. Available from http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/dse/wcmn203.nsf/Home+Page/8A461F99E54B17EBCA2570340016F3A9?open.

Holland, B., & Ramaley, J. A. (2008). Creating a supportive environment for community-university engagement : conceptual frameworks. Paper presented at the HERDSA 2008 : Engaging Communities. Available from https://herdsa.org.au/publications/conference-proceedings/research-and-development-higher-education-place-learning-and-62

International Conference on Engaging Communities (2005). Brisbane declaration on community engagement Available from https://www.lcsansw.org.au/documents/item/330

Latrobe City. (2015). Community Engagement Plan 2015-2019. Latrobe: Latrobe City. Available from http://www.latrobe.vic.gov.au/files/014dd216-3a74-4d27-8409-a51c00c884dd/Community_Engagement_Strategy_2015-2019_ADOPTED_Sept_2015.pdf

Moore, T., McDonald, M., McHugh-Dillon, H., & West, S. (2016). Community engagement: A key strategy for improving outcomes for Australian families (Child Family Community Australia Paper No. 39). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Available from https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/sites/default/files/cfca39-community-engagement.pdf

Sarkissian, W., Hofer, N., Shore, Y., Vajda, S., & Wilkinson, C. (2009). Kitchen table sustainability: Practical recipes for community engagement with sustainability. London: Earthscan.

South, J., & Phillips, G. (2014). Evaluating community engagement as part of the public health system. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 68(7), 692-696. doi: 10.1136/jech-2013-203742 Available from http://jech.bmj.com/content/68/7/692.abstract

Susskind, L., & Carson, L. (2008). The IAP2 Spectrum: Larry Susskind, in Conversation with IAP2 Members. International Journal of Public Participation, 2(2), 67-84. Available from http://www.activedemocracy.net/articles/Journal_08December_Carson.pdf.

WA Health (2007). WA Health consumer carer and community engagement framework: For health services, hospitals and WA Health following consultation across WA Health. Perth: Western Australia Department of Health. Available from http://www.health.wa.gov.au/HRIT/docs/10278_WA_Health_Consumer.pdf.

Wallis, R. (2006). What do we mean by “community engagement”? Paper presented at the Knowledge Transfer and Engagement Forum, Sydney. Available from www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/extension/news/documents/knowledge_transfer_june_2006.doc.

Updated: 14 February and 31 March 2017 to include some new quotes and fix broken links

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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7 Responses to Definitions of community engagement

  1. Pingback: Is ‘Community Engagement’ the new PR? – Site Title

  2. Karthik says:

    Hello Graeme Stuart,

    You can check the detail definition of community engagement for different industries, professions, organisations, business units within a single organisation, and even people within those business units will have different understandings of what constitutes “community engagement”.
    http://www.bangthetable.com/what-is-community-engagement/

    Like

  3. Drilling says:

    Good post. I certainly appreciate this website.
    Continue the good work!

    Like

  4. Trista says:

    I love your website; it is a wonderful resource and I can see the effort you pour into it. Please keep it up, it’s an inspiration.

    Like

  5. Pingback: What is Community Engagement? | Wendy Sarkissian PhD

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