As a Butteriss  highlights, community engagement means different things to different people and there is no widely accepted definition of community engagement. It might help to think about community engagement in three broad contexts:
- Community engagement in community development and community building – for example a community development project in caravan parks or large community art projects in marginalised communities
- Community engagement in service delivery – for example engaging parents and the local community in schools or a health promotion initiative encouraging healthy eating habits
- Community engagement in planning and decision making – for example a consultation about public transport options or planning for the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Of course these three broad areas are not discrete areas of work and in practice there is a great deal of overlap.
Butteriss  suggests that community engagement is both a process (how we do things e.g., ensuring that communities have a say in decision making) and an outcome (what we want to achieve e.g., community building or involving parents in a school). In planning and decision making, community engagement is largely used as a process, but in community development and service delivery, community engagement is often both a process and an outcome.
The Community Engagement Triangle helps us to think about the objectives of community engagement.
The Community Engagement Triangle identifies three overarching objectives:
- Decision making which provides opportunities for communities to contribute to improved decision making
- Relationship development which involves building new relationships and /or improving existing relationships with or within communities
- Capacity building which builds on community strengths so that communities and individuals can enhance their ability to influence their physical, social, economic and cultural environments
By being a triangle, it acknowledges that community engagement can have more than one objective and encourages us to think about what we are hoping to achieve. (Note: The Triangle was developed by the Capire Consulting Group and you can request a free booklet from them with more information. When I did, I received a quick response and there have been no unwanted emails since.)
It can also be helpful to recognise that there is a difference between vertical and horizontal community engagement.
Vertical community engagement is where organisations like government agencies, local councils, schools, businesses, health, community services or whatever, want to engage community members in planning and decisions, want to increase access to their services or want to involve communities in some other aspect of their work.
Horizontal community engagement is where people are engaged in their local community as active community members. While this often happens as a result of community interactions without the involvement of any formal initiatives, at times organisations or programs work to increase community connection. For example an important component of community building and community development is often building connections between community members and there can be health and educational benefits with increased social capital.
Although I don’t want to get too hung up on definitions it is worth considering “community” and “community engagement”. Unfortunately it’s quite hard to define both of these terms.
Ife  (and many others) argue that the definition of community is “highly problematic and contested” (p. 112) in that it is used in many different ways to mean many different things.
As an example of the problem with defining community, Shaffer and Anundsen [in 3] provide the following definition:
A community is a dynamic whole that emerges when a group of people:
• Participate in common practices
• Depend on one another
• Make decisions together
• Identify themselves as part of something larger than the sum of the individual relationship
• Commit themselves for the long term to their own, one another’s and the group’s well-being. (p. 246)
Notice it is quite an idealistic vision of what we want communities to be. In reality there can be real divisions and power struggles within communities and it’s important we recognise that communities are not always harmonious and supportive of all members.
The important thing to recognise is that generally communities:
- Are on a human scale (rather than larger, impersonal scales such as a whole nation).
- Involve some form of association or connection, which may include a sense of identify and belonging. The connection can be geographic (e.g., a town or neighbourhood), affiliation (e.g., a school community), special interest (e.g., skateboarders) or online (e.g., online discussion groups).
- Include some form of boundaries. At times, although the boundaries can be easily defined (e.g., people living in a certain neighbourhood), there can be people within the community (e.g., who live in the neighbourhood), who feel very much part of the community and those who feel quite excluded. At times the boundaries can be quite blurred. For example if we think of a school community, there would be little debate that it includes students, their parents and teachers, but it could also include some grandparents, some residents living near the school, some local businesses with an interest in the school and various other stakeholders.
Community engagement is also difficult to define. Many definitions of community engagement focus on vertical community engagement, particularly in relation to planning and decision making. The following are two useful examples of such definitions.
According to the United Nations International Conference on Engaging Communities :
Community engagement is a two way process:
• By which the aspirations, concerns, needs and values of citizens and communities are incorporated at all levels and in all sectors in policy development, planning, decision – making, service delivery and assessment; and
• By which governments and other business and civil society organisations involve citizens, clients, communities and other stakeholders in these processes.
Notice the emphasis on community engagement being a two way process. We aren’t taking about one-way communication.
The Department of Sustainability and Environment  defines community engagement as:
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. Linking the term ‘community’ to ‘engagement’ serves to broaden the scope, shifting the focus from the individual to the collective, with associated implications for inclusiveness, to ensure consideration is given to the diversity that exists within any community (p. 10).
There’s three things I want to emphasise in this definition. First, the focus is on the well-being of the community, not the interests of the organisation. Second, it recognises that community can be defined in a number of ways. Third, it recognises that by linking community and engagement it broadens the scope of what we’re talking about by shifting our focus away from the individual to the communal.
Community engagement generally focuses on engaging communities or groups of people, not just individuals. While engaging individuals without a focus on their community is important, it is generally not community engagement. The line can be fairly blurred at times – for example school trying to engage its students in the classroom is probably not an example of community engagement. But if a school is trying to engage students from a particular community (e.g., students from refugee families) and involving the community in the process, then it probably would be considered a form of community engagement.
What helps create confusion is that community engagement still involves engaging individuals. The difference is that in community engagement we are paying particularly attention to the role of individuals in their community and the role of community in the lives of individuals.
There are not as many definition of community engagement in the context of horizontal community engagement. In this context we are talking about community members being connected with other people within the community and being engaged in their community (e.g., through sports teams).
To make definitions more difficult, as Butteriss suggests, different people use the same term in different ways. For example, Chanan and Miller  define community involvement as “the involvement of local residents in local governance, public services and development” and suggest that community engagement is a “narrower term usually meaning the engagement of residents in a particular public service or initiative” (p. 13, emphasis added). I would include their definition of community involvement as a form of community engagement.
In teaching community engagement to university students I emphasise three things. First, my approach to community engagement is built on the belief that communities have many strengths and resources. My experience suggests that communities have many strengths and resources which we can draw on in our work and which we can build on when we’re working with communities. One of the things we can learn from strengths-based approaches to community engagement is the importance of horizontal community engagement and community-led initiatives which are not instigated externally by government agencies, non-government organisations or other external organisations. As professionals from external organisations we can recognise the importance of these types of initiatives, we can provide support where appropriate and we can help foster conditions (e.g., help build social capital) which make such community-led action more likely.
Second, community engagement is a two-way process. We aren’t taking about one-way communication. The focus of community engagement is not just about getting our message out to the community. It is not just marketing or public relations. I argue that community engagement is a two-way process where the community impacts on the work we do as well as us having an impact on the community.
Finally, I argue that community engagement is an ethical or principled process. In community engagement, ethical practice needs to underpin both what we do and how we do it.
If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:
- Definitions of community engagement
- 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
- Ethics and community engagement
- Updating a course on community engagement
- Teaching community engagement to students from 29 disciplines
- A community engagement reading list
- Butteriss, C. (2016). What is community engagement, exactly? Retrieved January 12, 2016, from http://bangthetable.com/what-is-community-engagement/
- Ife, J. W. (2013). Community development in an uncertain world: Vision, analysis and practice. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.
- Saleebey, D. (Ed.). (2009). The strengths perspective in social work practice (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- International Conference on Engaging Communities. (2005). Brisbane declaration on community engagement. Retrieved 5/2/2011, from https://www.lcsansw.org.au/documents/item/330
- 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. Available from http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/effective-engagement
- Chanan, G., & Miller, C. (2013). Rethinking community practice: Developing transformative neighbourhoods. Bristol: The Policy Press.