23 June 2009
Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Community engagement is a tricky matter.
We need to be flexible and still keep our eyes on the ball. It’s a changing landscape. A bit like navigating white water rapids in a small canoe.
When we add the issues of “sustainability” to the mix, things become more complex.
Here are eighteen good ideas to help keep us afloat in difficult times. They’re based on my practice and reading over the past forty years.
1. Distinguishing between community consultation and communication.
THIS MEANS: Making a clear distinction between the work of public relations, communication and marketing personnel and those undertaking community engagement and not allowing a “PR” approach to dominate the approach of the team.
2. Capacity building: developing community knowledgeability and literacy about complex technical and environmental issues:
Helping local people understand the implications of the discourses about sustainability and growth issues and to relate them to this project
- Building community capacity about options
3. Beyond identifiable stakeholders (the “usual suspects”)
THIS MEANS: Reaching much deeper into communities and using a much wider range of approaches than is usually employed with identifiable stakeholder groups. This has significant resource implications.
4. Addressing issues of cultural diversity by actively engaging culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) communities
THIS MEANS: Finding ways to target non-English-speaking and other cultural groups and to build bridges between and among cultural groups to open up a community conversation about options. This has significant resource implications in terms of translation and interpretation of all processes. It will be essential that processes employed with non-English speakers not be seen as abbreviated or lesser than processes for English-speaking community members.
THIS MEANS: Finding ways to maintain community interest and involvement over a long period, perhaps by tying processes to established community events and activities. Whatever processes are used to maintain pace and tempo, they must not smack of “tokenism and must be related to real target dates and deliverables.
6. Link to specific Council community engagement plans/protocols and successful modes of operation
THIS MEANS: A full inspection of each Council’s preferred ways of operating and reference to government protocols.
7. How can we ensure that consultation outcomes are actually fed into the feasibility study process?
THIS MEANS: An integrated design for the feasibility process which clearly indicates when and how community information and opinions will be taken into account to influence decisions at key target dates and deadlines. Feedback loops must be established so that the community can see how their views are being taken into account in the refinement of the approach taken.
8. Representativeness and tracking of community engagement activities and successes
THIS MEANS: Ensuring that participants in community engagement processes are representative of the wider community; developing and using deliberative democracy and other emerging processes that enhance representativeness; regular monitoring of representativeness issues and including ways to increase representativeness.
9. Relationships between and among various advisory groups and the servicing of these groups.
THIS MEANS: Developing clear draft terms of reference for each advisory group, including draft working protocols, assisting groups in refining these terms of reference and protocols and establishing clear reporting and liaison relationships between those groups and the project management, the ongoing community engagement strategy, as well as between those groups.
10. Skills and experience of engagement personnel, including experience with complex projects
THIS MEANS: Ensuring the personnel are selected and/or engaged who have a wide range of relevant successful experience and that senior personnel are employed, so that the community engagement function of a study is not seen as a “poor relation” with little real power to influence outcomes.
11. Evaluation proposals for community engagement:
THIS MEANS: Creation and maintenance of clear evaluation frameworks for the community engagement and precise use of outside evaluators (if engaged). In particular:
- The work and results of external evaluators must be made available to the project management (this will require details of their contributions and findings);
- Regular summaries of evaluation outcomes to enable ongoing monitoring; and
- Clear processes for responding to the results of evaluation processes.
12. A wide range of proposed approaches to be used (not simply a few old-fashioned approaches)
THIS MEANS: Community engagement processes should reflect the wide range of available approaches and not be limited to the traditional modes (often limited to public meetings, focus groups and exhibitions). Approaches should be selected for their relevance to the task at hand and the stage of the process, as well as the degree of community empowerment and partnership envisaged. A wide understanding of available methods should be demonstrated.
13. Encouraging the sustainability debate (to counteract NIMBY responses)
THIS MEANS: Actively pursuing community education options so that local people are offered genuine opportunities to explore the implications of automobile dependence for the sustainability agenda and develop an interest in exploring options. This will require a much richer model of community engagement than has been used on some projects.
14. How reports from community engagement personnel will be presented and how qualitative data and the emphasis participants place on issues will be depicted.
THIS MEANS: Employing sophisticated ways of analysing qualitative information so that it does not get treated as inferior to so-called “hard” data from engagement (or other) processes. Including the raw information for all processes so that participants can track how the material they provided was reported.
15. Intergenerational participation: involving children and young people
- Developing discrete, creative, tested and appropriate ways to engage children (up to 18 years) and young people (up to mid-twenties) and incorporating the results of those engagement processes into reports. This will require a deep understanding of the field of engagement with children and young people.
- Helping adults understand the wisdom of children and young people and ensuring that their contributions are treated with respect are key considerations.
16. Opportunities for creativity, where local people can become engaged at a deep level.
- Using appropriate and tested creative approaches from community cultural development realms, community visioning and creative visualisation and refining approaches to ensure that they are fully inclusionary.
- Using these approaches with discretion so that those familiar with more traditional approaches are not inadvertently excluded.
17. Electronic means of engagement: what methods work best and what methods are feasible for this project?
THIS MEANS: Working with all levels of government and other specialists and advisors to develop appropriate electronic community engagement methods and monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of any selected methods or techniques.
18. Reaching and engaging hard-to-reach groups and individuals.
THIS MEANS: Developing specific approaches to target hard-to-reach and marginalised groups (older people, people with a disability, Indigenous people, young people, members of CaLD communities, isolated and/or rural residents”¦.) and monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of those approaches.