A definition of community engagement by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning  reminds us that community engagement has a focus on the collective rather than the individual:
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. 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. 3).
Moore, McDonald, McHugh-Dillon, and West  argue that:
It is important to note that the difference between engaging individuals and engaging communities is more than just an economy of scale. A community is more than simply a group of individuals. We engage communities in order to improve outcomes for communities and we seek improved outcomes for communities not only as a means of improving outcomes for individual, but also to bring about change in the community itself: to improve the social fabric that provides us with a sense of belonging and connection. (p. 6)
Moore and his colleagues discuss community engagement in the context of improving outcomes for families, and their claim does not apply to all community engagement. For example community development by mining companies is often about a social licence to operate  rather than improving the social fabric. At the same time, the quote reinforces the notion that community engagement is more than a focus on the individual.
It may be helpful to think of community engagement as being on a continuum from a focus on the individual to a focus on the collective (see above).
There are not clear boundaries between engaging individuals, engaging families, engaging employees and engaging communities. (The above continuum only includes individual, family and community engagement, but other types of engagement could easily be added.)
Broad definitions of community make the boundaries between various types of engagement more confusing. For example, community can include school communities [4-6]; an industry based community of interest  could include a work community, and online communities are frequently identified as sites for community engagement [7, 8].
The fuzzy boundaries create challenges in deciding if something is community engagement. If we take a school as a community, it could be argued that a classroom teaching engaging students in their class is an example of community engagement. Even though it is clearly engagement, and could have quite a focus on the collective, the case for calling it community engagement is much weaker because the “community” being engaged is very narrow. Just because an engagement process is further up the collective end of the continuum, doesn’t necessarily mean it is community engagement.
As the quotes at the start of the post suggest, however, there does need to be some focus on the collective for it to be community engagement. This is one reason that providing information and marketing are not community engagement in their own right.
Processes that are clearly community engagement can also move up or down the continuum. Some community engagement has a greater focus on individuals and some has a greater focus on the collective.
If we consider the Spectrum of Public Participation, a survey of community members at the Consult level has a much greater focus on the individual (because it is collecting the responses of individuals with no interaction) than an interactive workshop at the Collaborate level. Even some processes at the Empower level can have a focus on the individual. As the spectrum moves to the right, the public has a greater impact on the decision, not greater engagement in the process. So a ballot (e.g., a referendum) is at the Empower level, but again the focus is on individual responses, not collective processes
Thinking of community engagement as being on this type of a continuum can help us to think about where our focus lies and whether or not we want to move towards the collective end of the continuum.
This is early stages of my thinking on this topic, so it is likely to change over the coming months/years. I would welcome your thoughts and feedback about the continuum. What are its strengths? What have I overlooked? How could it be improved? Thanks
If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:
- An introduction to community engagement
- What is the Spectrum of Public Participation?
- Definitions of community engagement
- 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
- Ethics and community engagement
- Bottom-up community development
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.
- Department of Environment‚ Land‚ Water and Planning. (2015). Effective Engagement: building relationships with community and other stakeholders. Book 1: An introduction to engagement (4th ed.). Melbourne: State Government of Victoria. Available from http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/effective-engagement (Last assessed 9 March 2017)
- Moore, T., McDonald, M., McHugh-Dillon, H., & West, S. (2016). Community engagement: A key strategy for improving outcomes for Australian families (Child Family Community Australia Paper No. 39). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Available from https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/sites/default/files/cfca39-community-engagement.pdf (Last assessed 9 March 2017)
- Macdonald, C. (2016). Community engagement and development: Leading Practice Sustainable Development Program for the Mining Industry. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. Available from https://www.industry.gov.au/resource/Documents/LPSDP/LPSDP-CommunityEngagement.pdf (Last assessed 9 March 2017)
- Fox, S., Southwell, A., Stafford, N., Goodhue, R., Jackson, D., & Smith, C. (2015). Better systems, better chances: A review of research and practice for prevention and early intervention. Canberra: Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth. Available from http://www.community.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/335168/better_systems_better_chances_review.pdf (Last assessed 9 March 2017)
- Jensen, B., & Sonnemann, J. (2014). Turning around schools: it can be done. Carlton: Grattan Institute. Available from http://grattan.edu.au/report/turning-around-schools-it-can-be-done/ (Last assessed 9 March 2017)
- Deal, T. E., & Peterson, K. D. (2016). Shaping School Culture. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Bang the Table. (2016). Know your community? 100 ideas to help engage your community online (2nd ed.). Fitzroy, Vic.: Bang the Table. Available from http://assets.cdnma.com/13684/assets/100IdeasBooklet-v2016.pdf (Last assessed 9 March 2017)
- Baldus, B. J., Voorhees, C., & Calantone, R. (2015). Online brand community engagement: Scale development and validation. Journal of Business Research, 68(5), 978-985. doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2014.09.035 Available from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014829631400318X (Last assessed 9 March 2017)