[Updated 21 July 2017]
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 in 2012, 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, and are based on authority and line management, and have 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. Of course, these types of relations aren’t mutually exclusive. For example peer, horizontal relationships play an important role in formal, hierarchical organisations as well as in communities.
A few years ago I become more aware of the differences the approaches taken when I worked as a professional in engaging the community and when I was involved in helping to build relationships between neighbours as a community member (e.g. through Transition Streets and the Kids Vegies on the Verge.
While there are similarities, there are also significant differences. I found 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.
It may help to think of vertical and horizontal community engagement as dimensions of community engagement rather than being totally separate approaches. While the processes used to encourage vertical community engagement are likely to be different to those used to enhance horizontal community engagement, many examples of community engagement involve aspects of both.
If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:
- An introduction to community engagement
- 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
- What are complex problems?
- What is Transition Streets?
- What is social capital?
- Types of community engagement – creating boxes?
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