Community engagement is a broad term as outlined by Butteriss; meaning different things depending on what sector is undertaking the engagement and the purpose of the work. It can be considered both a process and an outcome. 

Community engagement could be articulated 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 or identify to address issues affecting their well-being. Depending on the context, community engagement can cover; consultation, extension, communication, education, public participation, participative democracy or working in partnership.

Community engagement can be broken into three main categories, that overlap:: 

  1. Community development and community building (e.g.place based work, capacity building)
  2. Service delivery (e.g. involving service users in program design)
  3. Planning and decision making (e.g. strategic planning for a Neighbourhood Centre or Policy issues)

These categores or engagement have been translated into a visual tool called "the engagement triangle" (Capire Consulting Group)

  • Informing decisions: to provide opportunities for the community to contribute to decision making processes. 
  • Building capacity: to educate the community on a specific theme or issue to increase knowledge or change behaviours. 
  • Strengthening relationships: to build new relationships and/or improve relationships with the community. 

This tool is useful to help consider what outcomes the engagement is trying to achieve. 

The public participation spectrum developed by the International Association for Public Participation Australasia (IAPP2) provides a guide to understanding levels of community engagment and the impact on communities. 

Types of engagement:

  1. Inform: To provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions.
  2. Consult:To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions.
  3. Involve: To work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.
  4. Collaborate: To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution
  5. Empower: To place final decision making in the hands of the public. 

It is also useful to view community engagement as either vertical or horizontal:

  • Vertical community engagement - includes government, organisations, or business want to engage the community in some aspect of their work (decision making, program development, policy development).
  • Horizontal community engagement - is related to community capacity building and development; where people are engaged and active citizens.

To dive deeper into the complexities involved in community engagement across this axis, and the opportunities between spaces, Eileen Conn (2011) has written an interesting paper exploring different ways of working across sectors. 

A range of tools have been collated to assist with the development, implementation and evaluation of engagement activities which may be useful for organisations (Department of Environment and Primary Industries (Victorian government).

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