Ethics and community engagement

(Photo: oatsy40)

(Photo: oatsy40)

The ethics of community engagement needs to come to the forefront of our work. Let me start with a confession. When I started to develop an undergraduate elective on community engagement at Newcastle Uni in 2008, I included ethics in the final module because I knew I should. To be honest, it was a bit of an add-on and I didn’t really know what to say about it.

Now, after 780 students from 38 different degrees have done the subject, ethics is increasingly underpinning the course. My aim is for students to come away with a passion for community engagement and the strengths of communities, or at least an awareness of the possibilities presented by community engagement. But I also want students to come away seeing community engagement as being based on a principled approach.

Ethics in community engagement involves:

  1. How we do it
  2. What we do

How we do it

Ethical community engagement involves working to high ethical standards and so how we go about engagement is vitally important.

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation and the International Association for Public Participation worked with a range of other organisation to identify principles for public engagement which can equally apply to community engagement:

  1. Careful planning and preparation: Through adequate and inclusive planning, ensure that the design, organization, and convening of the process serve both a clearly defined purpose and the needs of the participants.
  2. Inclusion and demographic diversity: Equitably incorporate diverse people, voices, ideas, and information to lay the groundwork for quality outcomes and democratic legitimacy.
  3. Collaboration and shared purpose: Support and encourage participants, government and community institutions, and others to work together to advance the common good.
  4. Openness and learning: Help all involved listen to each other, explore new ideas unconstrained by predetermined outcomes, learn and apply information in ways that generate new options, and rigorously evaluate public engagement activities for effectiveness.
  5. Transparency and trust: Be clear and open about the process, and provide a public record of the organizers, sponsors, outcomes, and range of views and ideas expressed.
  6. Impact and action: Ensure each participatory effort has real potential to make a difference, and that participants are aware of that potential.
  7. Sustained engagement and participatory culture Promote a culture of participation with programs and institutions that support ongoing quality public engagement (Atlee et al., 2009).

While there are many similarities in the principles of community engagement identified by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, I like the addition of courage to their list.

  1. Courage
  2. Inclusiveness
  3. Commitment
  4. Respect & honesty
  5. Flexibility
  6. Practicability
  7. Mutual obligation (Aslin & Brown, 2004).

What we do

As well as ensuring that how we do community engagement is ethical, it is also important to consider WHAT we do. In our pursuit of profit and economic growth, too often the ethics of what we do has been ignored. As an example, while it isn’t directly community engagement, I have real problems with psychologists who have work with the gambling industry to make pokies as addictive as they can or who help advertisers create ads that cash in on children’s vulnerabilities.

Following are five questions I think we need to ask ourselves as community engagement practitioners about what we do.

What is the motivation for engaging the community?

There are some motivations for community engagement which I think we would all agree are appropriate, for example:

  • Better informed decision-making
  • Community building
  • Improving service delivery.

There are also motivations for community engagement which I suspect we would agree are questionable. For example, I’m sure we would question the ethics of holding “public consultation” when a decision has already been made and the community engagement is just window dressing.

Like many ethical issues, there are also grey areas, where different people will have different positions. Examples might include community engagement where the main (or high) priority is to maintain a social license for coal mining, or community engagement based around the new casino to be built in Sydney.

Whose interests are being served?

Closely related to the question of motivation, is a questions around whose interests are being served. As I’ve suggested, with ethical issues, there are many grey areas and there won’t always be clear-cut answers. It can help to think about a continuum with one end being where the main focus is the interests of the organisation and the other end being where the main focus is the interests of the community.


If community engagement is primarily about the interests of the organisation, then I think it is appropriate to question the ethics of its community engagement. Community engagement should serve the interests of the community.

Of course this raises questions about whose voices we are hearing from the community. When we engage a community, we need to think about whose interests within the community are being served. I would argue that we generally have an ethical responsibility to protect the interests of marginalised sections of the community and to consider whose voices are being missed in our conversations.

In a caravan park I worked with (as a community worker) there was a Resident Liaison Committee whose members had no young children and most of them lived in manufactured homes they owned (rather than renting a caravan park or cabin like some of the other permanent residents). The Liaison Committee supported a decision by the park management to remove play equipment due to insurance concerns. There is no doubt that the Liaison Committee was acting in the interests of some of the park residents, but at the expense of more marginalised residents (many of whom had children). At one level, there was good community engagement, because residents were involved in the decision-making. At another level, people who had little voice already were further marginalised by the process (Stuart, 2004).

We have a responsibility to think broadly about whose interests are being served by community engagement. Communities are not homogeneous – 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 contributing to community well-being?

We need to remember that we are not just talking engagement, but community engagement, which suggests a focus on the collective and not just the individual. This suggests that there needs to be some benefit for the community. I like the following definition 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 (Department of Sustainability & Environment, 2005).

Notice the emphasis on community well-being. Through community engagement, people can have input into planning, decision making and activities that helps to improve their wellbeing. Clearly there will often be debates about the best way to enhance community wellbeing, but this should be part of the process.

I find it helpful to think about vertical and horizontal aspects of community engagement. Vertical community engagement is when a formal organisation (often external to the community) engages the community.

Vertical community engagement

Horizontal community engagement refers to the more informal connections between community members. Horizontal community engagement is very important when we consider social capital.

Horizontal community engagement

Good community engagement helps promote horizontal community engagement as well as vertical community engagement. For example if there are divisive issues in communities, one of our aims should be to build great connections and understanding between community members. The notion of divide and conquer, does not belong in community engagement.

Is it a two-way process?

Community engagement is a two-way process. Media campaigns, marketing and information giving might be important in community engagement, but they are NOT community engagement in their own right. Community engagement involves meaningful interactions.

In my community engagement course, students need to critique an example of community engagement. I now discourage students from doing charity fundraising events such as Race for Research and Jeans for Genes day. While these might be great events, and can form part of a broader community engagement strategy, they are limited as examples of community engagement. They do not really involve a two-way process and thus lack meaningful community engagement.

Is it contributing to environmental sustainability?

Finally, we face many environmental challenges in the coming decades. We need to address climate change, our over use of many resources and our addiction to fossil fuels. The time has come for this to be a major priority, particularly for people from over-developed countries like Australia. The time has come for us to question community engagement processes that undermine our urgent need to become more sustainable.

Ethical community engagement is not a matter of black and white. There are many grey areas but hopefully the above five questions can help us to think about the type of work we do.

If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  2. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  3. A story of two communities
  4. Some definitions of community engagement?
  5. What are complex problems?
  6. Teaching community engagement to students from 29 disciplines


Aslin, H. J., & Brown, V. (2004). Towards whole of community engagement: A practical toolkit. Canberra: Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

Atlee, T., Buckley, S., Godec, J., Harris, R.-A., Heierbacher, S., Nurse, L., et al. (2009). Core principles for public engagement.  National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation

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.

Stuart, G. (2004). Community leadership: A tale of two residential parks. In R. Flowers (Ed.), Education and Social Action Conference Proceedings. Sydney: University of Technology of Sydney.

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 Working with communities and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Ethics and community engagement

  1. The information I have got here is clear and understandable, keep on performing your great job…


  2. Sana ullah says:

    I want to social topic Dilemmas


  3. Pingback: Ethical Engagement: Do Top Managers Really Care?

  4. Pingback: Ethical Engagement: Do Top Managers Really Care?

  5. Pingback: The Ethics of Working in a Community | sarahjcress

  6. Hi Pip
    Your PhD sounds interesting!
    Thinking again about the course I teach (which, as you probably realise, is a standalone subject) when students do a critique of an example of community engagement, they very rarely discuss the ethics of it. I wonder how much ethics does influence people’s work. I suspect people might feel bad about situations they are in, or aren’t really keen about the who they work for (e.g., people who are worried about climate change but work in the coal industry), but still do it anyway. I suspect some people do make decisions about what work they do because of ethical considerations, but it would be interesting to see to what extent.
    My guess would be that ethics would have a greater impact on how people do their work than what they do.
    I’m often remember reading that people’s beliefs are affected by their actions more than people’s actions are affected by their beliefs. I suspect ethics is one of those areas.
    I’ll be interested to hear about the progress of your research.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hi Graeme, a great article and one which I would like to use with your permission. I am currently a PhD candidate at Monash. My question is “what are the political and ethical constraints and opportunities confronting practitioners and other stakeholders (including media) in government administrated and /or legislated community engagement practices in rural and regional Queensland”?
    I am really pleased to see ethics being addressed in undergraduate courses but having taught ethics (business) to undergrads myself I wonder just what ethics mean to them. Are they guided by moral values or consequentialism? However I am planning to ‘establish’ how much they mean to CE practitioners in the field working in complex areas such as CSG. I suspect a lot, and that they/we are often conflicted especially when the primary object is a social licence to operate.
    As my work has a theoretical base, I am also aware that much do what we do is deeply entrenched in our political frameworks and this makes changing the outcomes difficult.
    I would really like to know your thoughts on this. I would also like to use your article in work? Would you mind? Are you planning on publishing anywhere else. Citation details etc.


    • Pip says:

      That last post was written by Pip Hanrick


    • Anonymous says:

      Anomymous, say a few more words about ” social license to operate”, please.


      • I’ve been thinking of doing a post about a social license to operate. Basically it’s the ideas that some companies or industries (e.g., mining) need the acceptance and approval (if not the support and consent) of local communities to operate. Some mining companies invest significant amounts of money in community development in communities near their mines. One of the benefits of this investment is that the local communities are more likely to support the continued operation of the mine.


  8. Great article, one I have shared.


  9. Chris Ho-Stuart says:

    You say: “I included ethics in the final module because I knew I should. To be honest, it was a bit of an add-on and I didn’t really know what to say about it.”

    That rings bells for me; and a lot of other academics as well I am pretty sure! This is a really good post. The technique of identifying some key questions and keeping them in mind as a part of preparing all parts of a course is a very good one; and thinking about it now it retrospect; it could work for all kinds of topic areas — not just community engagement.

    I used to prepare materials for software engineering, and software quality assurance. The questions I could have used would have been a bit different, but your five questions could easily be a starting point for anyone in all kinds of subject areas wanting to have ethics well integrated in their subject.


    • Anonymous says:

      Graeme, I am curious. Why do you think you did not think of ethics initially?


      • The main reason was that there was a lot to fit into a one semester subject and I wanted to focus on the practice of community engagement. It was hard to fit everything in, and initially I thought there were other priorities. I knew ethical practice was important, but thought students needed to be motivated to engage communities and to have some skills for doing so.


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