What are vertical and horizontal community engagement?

Vertical and horizontal community engagement[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:

  1. Vertical citizenship involves active citizenship in terms of engagement with the state (e.g., voting, being involved in consultations)
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

Vertical community engagement

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.

Horizontal community engagement

Horizontal community engagement

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:

  1. An introduction to community engagement
  2. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  3. What are complex problems?
  4. What is Transition Streets?
  5. What is social capital?
  6. Types of community engagement – creating boxes?

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.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Facilitation & teaching, Working with communities and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to What are vertical and horizontal community engagement?

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  8. sabahahmed25 says:

    Thank you so much.


  9. mike roberts says:

    There is already work out there on Planning for Real and Capacity Building and models which work and these have demonstrated their usefulness over the years. If all parties go into a engagement as equal partners in the widest sense then the outcomes can be endorsed by all. Its when you have a Kensington and Chelsea situaliton with Grenfell then you get all the worst case scenario


    • Not sure how this relates to vertical and community engagement but certainly agree there are models out there which have strong track records.


    • Hi Mike and Graeme. It’s good to see this topic resurrect itself from time to time. It is true that if parties go into engagement as equal partners then it is a more effective engagement all round. I created my two systems model to draw attention to some of the reasons that the ‘equal partners’ between vertical and horizontal worlds is very rare. Unless we can see these problems they cannot be addressed. For equal partnership the partners need to understand and accept their differences in organisation and process.

      Too often in the UK, and I doubt that this is much different in other places, the vertical system has no grasp that the horizontal system exists as a system of different dynamics and processes. This then results in the vertical system failing to understand how to relate effectively to the horizontal system. Since the vertical usually has the dominant power and say in how it happens that creates ineffectiveness.

      This is in real life not a full explanation of all the dynamics of these interactions. But for the majority of interactions between the corporate vertical world and the community horizontal world the dominant mode of operation of each of them will be one or the other. This has significant implications for their interactions and they will repeatedly stumble for similar reasons until this is understood.

      It is not about vertical ways being better for engagement or horizontal ways being better. It is the recognition that they are both in interaction most of the time, and have different (dominant) natures and this results in poor interactions. I do recommend pages 2-11 of my paper ‘community engagement in the social eco-system dance’. http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/tsrc/documents/tsrc/discussion-papers/discussion-paper-b-community-engagement.pdf

      There I explain how and why these differences are rooted in real life and the organisational arrangements that have evolved to deal with our collective behaviour. I called it a ‘dance’ because the two systems (or patterns of behaviour) are locked into a repetitive way of behaving in their interactions as much as in a physical dance with specific dance steps and moves.

      Hearing the way the corporate organisations dealt with the attempts by the Grenfell Residents Group to raise concerns about safety, I am sad to say sounded so familiar and is partly the result of the myopia from the vertical system not seeing the horizontal system adequately or appropriately, and in this case sidelining them and not hearing them.
      Eileen Conn


      • Hi Eileen, I actually refer to your paper (and link to it) in this blog post and it was one of my inspirations for my post. I do, however, use vertical community engagement and horizontal community engagement in a different way. I’m using vertical community engagement to refer to organisations engaging community members, and horizontal community engagement to refer to engagement between community members.
        Your discussion about vertical systems and horizontal systems is quite relevant to this discussion. In particular, the dance you describe is relevant to vertical community engagement where the organisation (which is more of a vertical system) is seeking to engage “the community” (which is more of a horizontal system).
        I do encourage people to read your paper and have used it as required reading in some of the courses I teach.
        Thanks for your detailed comment.


      • Hi Graeme – I am copying this from your reply to respond to this point, as the system doesn’t seem to give a reply option to yr response:
        **Hi Eileen, I actually refer to your paper (and link to it) in this blog post and it was one of my inspirations for my post. I do, however, use vertical community engagement and horizontal community engagement in a different way. I’m using vertical community engagement to refer to organisations engaging community members, and horizontal community engagement to refer to engagement between community members.**

        Graeme – I know and am very glad you have picked up my paper and give it this airing! I see the occasional responses and queries in your blog like this, and it is a pleasure to see them!
        This is especially so because you have got my point completely and we use the vertical and horizontal idea in very similar ways ie the horizontal being the community engagement with itself, and the vertical as the organised vertical world interaction with the horizontal system in myriad ways. I want to affirm that and say that it is exactly the distinction I make, not a different one!
        In my own work I focus (simply because time is short!) on the processes to strengthen the horizontal system and to show how to create more effective means for the vertical and horizontal systems to interact and collaborate effectively. Most of the interactions between the two systems are woefully short of what they could be. A result is seen in the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. More not so visible ones occur every day.
        There are many more people across the world working to improve the operations of the vertical world so I am happy to leave that to them, while I make my small contribution to improving the way the vertical system interacts with the horizontal and how the horizontal can strengthen itself for that interaction and for its own purposes anyway.
        Best wishes from the other side of our world!
        Eileen Conn

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Vertical and Horizontal Community engagements is an ongoing process in any Democracy, lending substance to the potency of People’s Power and its transformative potential in ensuring Equitable Political Outcomes.
    Shall be following this blog keenly. An Informative post, where not only our Enforceable Rights but also our Obligations as Citizens is emphasised.
    Thank You!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. The explanation of the vertical participation and the horizontal participation was clearly explained but what I want was the main difference but here is the case I find it difficult to differenciate them


  12. Karlie Cole says:

    Here in Minnesota (USA), we are working on finding out if we can build horizontal networks of engagement between government, businesses, community groups, neighbors, etc. using the internet as a bridge and access leveler. It is interesting to see in which situations vertical engagement is more effective and when horizontal is more effective and the spectrum that we all dance in between the two.


  13. Adria says:

    Good article, Graeme! More information, more knowledge!


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