The more I read and practice, the more aware I become of the many dimensions of community engagement. One of these dimensions is vertical and horizontal community engagement. At a seminar last month, Alison Mathie from the Coady Institute spoke about horizontal and vertical dimensions of citizenship. She suggested that:
- Vertical citizenship involves active citizenship in terms of engagement with the state (e.g., voting, being involved in consultations)
- Horizontal citizenship involves active citizenship through being engaged with the local community (e.g., volunteering, acting out civic duty, membership of local institutions).
I realised this was quite relevant to community engagement too, and when I looked into it more, I came across a great paper by Eileen Conn “Community engagement in the social eco-system dance”. In a thought provoking article, she draws on complexity theory (I’ve discussed complex problems and community engagement previously) to compare two different types of relationships:
- Vertical hierarchical systems are found in formal organisations, are based on authority and line management, and clear structures. They are the types of relationships we are likely to experience at work.
- Horizontal peer systems are found in neighbourhoods, groups of friends and other informal networks. These relationships are based on personal links, are informal and rely on mutual interest.
She suggests that we often fail to recognise these differences and that this can lead to significant challenges when the two types of systems interact.
I have been increasingly aware of the differences in the two systems in my work and teaching. My teaching around community engagement focuses on professionals (vertical relationships) seeking to engage the community. At the moment a major focus of my practice is through the Transition Streets Challenge – which is encouraging community engagement at a neighbourhood level (horizontal relationships).
The processes involved are quite different and so I’m finding it helpful to think in terms of vertical and horizontal community engagement.
Vertical community engagement
Vertical community engagement is where government, business, or other organisations want to engage the community in consultation, decision making or in some other aspect of their work.
Vertical community engagement is particularly associated with consultation and planning, and is generally initiated from the top down, even if a bottom up process is adopted. Examples might include a local council seeking community involvement in reducing energy use. A charity attempting to engage community members in a fund raising initiative. A state government wanting community involvement in planning.
In terms of Conn’s article, this is where the two types of relationship interact.
Horizontal community engagement
Horizontal community engagement is where people are engaged in their local community as active community members.
This type of community engagement is often associated with community building and community development. While it largely happens as a result of community interactions, the aim of many organisations and programs is to increase horizontal community engagement. Many voluntary community groups (e.g., sports clubs, environments groups) are also keen (if not desperate) to increase engagement with their local community and to have more people engaged.
The processes used to encourage vertical community engagement are likely to be different to those used to enhance horizontal community engagement. A starting point is to be aware of the differences between the two types of engagement.
Much of this blog focuses on vertical community engagement, but over the next few weeks and months I’m going to be discussing the Transition Streets Challenge which is an example of a voluntary community group promoting horizontal community engagement.
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