What do you know about the terms ‘community engagement’, ‘community consultation’, communications?  Some people still think it’s all the same activity.  Some employers think their business development staff conduct community engagement. Some still think that if you’re a community engagement practitioner your vocation is linked to marketing…

Some think community engagement practitioners must have expertise in fundraising!

And, to be clear, whilst community engagement practitioners might organise public meetings or workshops, they are also not event managers…

So, what is Community Engagement?  According to Butteriss, 2014; Hind, 2010; O’Mara-Eves et al., 2013; Stuart, 2011, there is no commonly agreed definition of community engagement and the term is often used interchangeably with a number of other concepts – such as consultation, participation, collaboration and empowerment – all of which are related to community engagement but do not capture all aspects of the concept (Cornwall, 2008; Hartz-Karp, 2007; Melo & Baiocchi, 2006).

To my friends at the Tamarack Institute in Canada (http://tamarackcommunity.ca/g3s11.html), community engagement means “people working collaboratively, through inspired action and learning, to create and realise bold visions for their common future”.

Community engagement is often depicted as a continuum, ranging from low-level engagement strategies such as consultation to high-level strategies such as empowerment.

The International Association for Public Participation’s (IAP2) public participation spectrum is typical of the kind of distinctions made between different levels of participation where the level of impact is increased as participation increases.

Authentic community engagement is not all about surveys, for obvious reasons…

Authentic community engagement means having an open, early dialogue with those who are being impacted or affected by a decision to be made.  It’s about informing and consulting with communities, individuals, and other stakeholders – particularly those who are “hard to reach”.

One of the most important community engagement techniques, particularly in times of conflict and outrage, is finding common ground.

To sum it all up – we’d suggest that authentic community engagement is a process where the entity managing the engagement activity:

  • proactively seeks out community values, concerns and aspirations;
  • incorporates those values, concerns and aspirations into a decision-making process or processes; and
  • establishes an ongoing partnership with the community to ensure that the community’s priorities and values continue to shape services and the relevant system
  • uses mixed tools and techniques in the consultation processes.

This is in line with the 2005 United Nations Brisbane Declaration on Community Engagement which envisage community engagement as 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.

Being a community engagement practitioner requires courage, political astuteness, empathy, and the ability to use sticky walls, post-it notes and lots of round sticky dots.  We listen, engage, consult and collaborate.  We facilitate open, honest discussion even when that may seem unimaginable at the beginning of the process. We collaboratively develop engagement frameworks, processes and policies that guide and increase the effectiveness of engagement activities.  We analyse and evaluate engagement processes.  

Authentic community engagement is based on values and respecting that everyone has a right to have their opinion heard. 

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