Community engagement is a vital part of both public and private-sector decision making. With this rise in organisations undertaking community engagement, it’s important to consider the whole picture of what community engagement means before jumping straight into delivery.
What is community engagement?
The definition of community engagement varies but in effect, it means the collaborative interaction of community members with decision-makers about issues that impact them and taking forward this feedback into the decision-making process.
Collaborating and consulting with your community creates stronger relationships between organisations and their communities, and this trust creates empowerment and opportunities for the mutual formulation of actions, policies and strategies.
Similar terms include civic participation and public engagement but these differ slightly. Read more about these differences here
What are the principles of community engagement?
Community engagement is about creating a two-way dialogue and for that collaborative feedback to be channelled into decision making.
The notion that it is just a tick in a box on the way to a project being signed off is not only outdated but inherently dangerous.
In the age of digital advancement, accessibility to communities has never been greater and organisations can build on that to create a genuine culture of participation and collaboration with their communities.
Why is community engagement important?
Without collaboration with the relevant community members affected, decisions are top-down and risk disengagement with the organisation or decision-makers, competing ideas and at worst revolt.
Instead by involving the people impacted or who can benefit, seeking their feedback and participation – new ideas can be generated, strategies can be tested and the community feel very much part of the journey. This creates an engaged group of individuals who feel listened to and valued and understand the inner workings of the particular issue.
This early involvement and transparency can facilitate more informed decisions and sustainable outcomes. Read more about the benefits of community engagement for organisations.
How do you decide on the level of community engagement?
You need to choose the level of your community engagement based on the impact of the decision on your community and the influence of your stakeholders. The IAP2 spectrum is a worldwide tool used to define the various levels of engagement from informing up to empowered, mutual decision making.
Choosing which level needs to be individual and bespoke for each project or issue. For example, for a planning notification, it may be standard to put an advertisement in the newspaper and put up signs in the local area. For a contentious planning application, there is likely to be more community interest so it would be wise to increase the level of engagement & communication, the diversity of engagement methods and involve the community early on in the plans.
For many low-impact and low-interest decisions, informing is adequate however for anything more complex or of high interest, it’s always best to provide multiple and deeper opportunities for participation.
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re planning to install or remove something, informing may not be enough and you will need to consider moving up the scale into consultation and involvement.
How do you define your community?
The first challenge is to define the scope of your audience or the impacted community involved. This may simply be a geographic area or an interest group, however, most organisations need to engage with multiple audiences requiring different approaches and strategies.
Start by collating information on all your various stakeholder groups and prioritise these in terms of impact. You can also use a stakeholder matrix to cross-reference impact and influence so your priority would be to the community members who are high impact and high influence.
It’s important to tailor your strategy to help you both reach and effectively engage the different stakeholder groups, particularly the harder to reach groups. On your matrix, you can differentiate both the communication and engagement methods for each group of stakeholders.
What you need to consider when creating your community engagement plan
- Community Engagement Strategy – Are you writing a project-specific or organisation-wide strategy? Your document needs to include some standard information that outlines your objectives, audience, risks, methods and measurement tools but make sure you also include any elements that are unique to your organisation, project or demographics. For more information, read our article on how to write an effective community engagement strategy
- What’s your approach? – There are literally hundreds of combinations of approaches to community engagement and you need to select what method or types of engagement are going to suit your audience and get you the best results. For ideas on both digital and traditional approaches to community engagement, read our article – What are the different types of community engagement practices?
- Consider your challenges and risks – Your plan needs to include an objective view of the general challenges within community engagement (read more here) and your organisation or project-specific risks. Following this, you need to include a discussion of how you are going to reduce or mitigate these risks
- Choosing your tools – There are several tools you need in your community engagement toolkit. One of the most powerful is an online engagement platform like Engagement Hub but you may also need some tools for planning (e.g. Mind mapping, Project planning software etc), production (Video production software, animation software, graphic design tools, Grammarly etc) or delivery (social media, apps, online meeting technology, portable kiosks and displays, recording equipment etc). Find out more about what you need in your community engagement toolkit here
- Building in measurement – This is a step many people skip before launching their community engagement. Without in-built evaluation tools or methods, you risk not being able to quantify or report on your engagement results or measure which practices were most successful or beneficial. There are many ways you can measure your community engagement in our helpful article here.
- Share your engagement plans– one of the forgotten challenges when planning your community engagement is often how to reach your target audience. Making your engagement visible is crucial to the success of your strategy. Without promotion, numbers may be too low to draw conclusions on and your engagement is therefore not representative of your community. As a key part of your strategy, you must consider how you plan to reach your audience with prioritised activity. Don’t be stuck for ideas, read our 52 ways to promote your community engagement project.
Resourcing Community Engagement
One of the greatest challenges is adequately resourcing community engagement as it takes a lot of work to be done correctly and to be truly transparent and accountable.
When you’re time-poor, you need to be smart about selecting your approach to engagement. An online consultation platform like Engagement Hub, dramatically reduces your workload, increases your visibility and reach, gives you access to numerous participation tools and delivers instant reports.