Community engagement – some questions

There are a variety of activities which involve people but couldn’t be considered community engagement. For example, Coca-cola had a campaign awhile ago where you could get your name on a can or bottle.

It was a good example of engaging people with their product, but it isn’t community engagement – it’s marketing.

I think there are some questions we can ask when critiquing community engagement:

  1. What is the motivation for engaging the community?
  2. Is it contributing to community wellbeing?
  3. Who’s interests are being served?
  4. Is it a two way process?

What is the motivation for engaging the community?

There can a variety of reasons we might want to engage communities including:

  • Better informed decision making
  • Community building
  • Developing strategies to address issues
  • Contributing to the community

There are also reasons for community engagement which I think raise questions about the motivations including increasing brand recognition or sales and maintaining (or creating) a social licence to operate. Where these are the primary aims, I think we need to question the motivation. There are times, however, when these are part of the motivation but there is also a focus on the benefits for the community.

At times, community engagement is really only window dressing. If a decision has already been made, undertaking “consultation” is meaningless and can even be destructive. Some people are already cynical of many attempts by government bodies to consult and do not believe that the results of consultation are listened to and that recommendations are often not followed through. By inferring that community members will have an impact on the outcomes when they won’t really, we increase the mistrust of consultation and community participation in planning. We have an ethical obligation to be open and honest when planning community engagement. (One of the strengths of the Spectrum of Public Participation is the promise to the public which encourages us to be clear about how much influence or control is being offered.)

Is it contributing to community well-being?

Community engagement needs to involve a benefit for the community. According to the Department of Sustainability & Environment, community engagement is:

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.

Notice the emphasis on community well-being. While not all definitions of community engagement are this explicit about the importance of community well-being, they do recognise that there needs to be a benefit for the community. The problem with a focus on building a brand or increasing sales, is that it is not helping to address community well-being.

I don’t think a cigarette company trying to engage the community in smoking should be classified as community engagement. I think discussion of how the community is benefiting is justified. Of course there are times where there will be debate about whether or not there is community benefit and so I think it is helpful to ask the question.

Who’s interests are being served?

It is worth considering whose interest are being served in community engagement. It can help to think in terms of a continuum from the interests of the organisation to the interests of the community.

If a community engagement activity or process is primarily about the interests of the organisation, then I think it is appropriate to question its value as community engagement. Once again there will often be debates about whose interests are really being served. For example, is coal mining in the interests of the community? I don’t think there is a clear cut answer and so it is good to ask the question.

I also think we have a responsibility to think more broadly about whose interests are being served by community engagement. Communities are not homogenous – there can be competing interests within a community. As community engagement practitioners we need to think about how we will ensure that a diverse range of experiences and interests are included. We need to ensure that our processes do not further disadvantage marginalised sections of the community.

Is it a two way process?

Community engagement is a two way process. Media campaigns, marketing and information giving are NOT community engagement. Information is a vital component of community engagement but it is not enough on its own. When planning community engagement we need to think about how we will listen to the community and actively engage them.

Teaching about community engagement, particularly to students coming from disciplines where community building and community development are not a focus, is encouraging me to be clear about the difference between community engagement and processes that involve the public but do not really engage them (e.g. marketing and public relations).

What questions do you think we should ask about community engagement?

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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