Community engagement

A key strategy for improving outcomes for Australian families
CFCA Paper No. 39 – April 2016

Building community engagement in practice

Establishing relationships

Community engagement is essentially a relational process that occurs at a local level. It involves professionals who represent services and service systems building personal relationships with community members and groups, based on mutual trust and respect. This provides the basis for the two remaining key aspects of community engagement - joint decision-making and capacity building.

Understanding community engagement as a relational process has implications for service systems and parent groups. For service systems, community engagement requires having professionals whose role it is to build relationships with community groups - this could be either a dedicated role or as part of their more general professional responsibilities. In community engagement, these professionals are building relationships with a community on behalf of a service system. For this to be effective, the service system itself needs to be acting in a coordinated fashion, with effective communication and common goals. Building integrated service systems is desirable in its own right, but it also makes it easier for the system to engage the community.

For parent groups, community engagement involves those groups meeting regularly with the professionals who represent the service system. This means that parents need opportunities to meet on a regular basis. There is a much greater likelihood of obtaining a good understanding of the collective views of community members if they already meet regularly and have opportunities to share experiences and develop emergent opinions about what they need (Moore, 2004). Providing parents with opportunities to meet regularly has direct benefits for parents by building social networks, but also makes it easier for the community to engage with the service system.

Efforts to engage communities are often initiated by governments and service systems, such as those that plan or deliver services to children and their families. However it is important to note that community engagement initiatives may also be initiated by communities themselves. For example, a grassroots environmental group comprising residents of a specific local government area (LGA) may seek to engage the broader community in their LGA to determine the most pressing environmental concerns in the community and ensure these concerns are incorporated into decisions regarding advocacy and environmental campaigning.

When and why to engage communities

Community engagement can be undertaken for any number of purposes. In this paper we have focused upon community engagement as a process undertaken with a subset of the wider community - families of young children - with the ultimate aim of improving outcomes for children and families.

There is a number of points at which an organisation that plans or delivers services to children and families might engage the aspirations, concerns and values of a community, including when they are:

  • designing, planning or developing a new resource or initiative;
  • changing or amending an existing resource or initiative; or
  • at an impasse with a particular problem or issue.

The reasons why they might do so include that they:

  • want to ensure a new resource will meet the needs of the local community;
  • want to know how to improve an existing initiative;
  • think the community can help to address a problem in the community that is especially prevalent or concerning; and/or
  • are required to do so as part of a legislative or contractual arrangement.

In this paper we focus upon community engagement by institutions that (a) devise policies pertaining to children and their families or (b) plan and/or deliver services to children and their families. In Australia, examples of those institutions include: government health, welfare and human service departments; non-government community and welfare agencies; universal child and maternal health services; community hubs; early childhood education and care (ECEC) organisations and services; family support organisations and services; community-based service providers delivering targeted support to families (e.g., parenting programs, supported playgroups); and early childhood intervention organisations and services.

Principles to guide community engagement

In its primer on community engagement, the US Department of Health and Human Services (2011) identifies a set of principles to guide community engagement. These are organised in three sections: (1) items to consider prior to beginning engagement; (2) necessary preconditions for engagement; and (3) what to consider for engagement to be successful.

1. Before starting a community engagement effort …

  • Be clear about the purposes or goals of the engagement effort and the populations or communities you want to engage.
  • Become knowledgeable about the community's culture, economic conditions, social networks, political and power structures, norms and values, demographic trends, history, and history of efforts by outside groups to engage it in various programs. Learn about the community's perceptions of those initiating the engagement activities.

2. For engagement to occur, it is necessary to …

  • Go to the community, establish relationships, build trust, work with the formal and informal leadership, and seek commitment from community organisations and leaders to create processes for mobilising the community.
  • Remember and accept that collective self-determination is the responsibility and right of all people in a community. No external entity should assume it can bestow on a community the power to act in its own self-interest.

3. For engagement to succeed …

  • It is necessary to partner with the community to create change and improve health.
  • Recognise and respect the diversity of the community. Awareness of the various cultures of a community and other factors affecting diversity must be paramount in planning, designing, and implementing approaches to engaging a community.
  • Identify and mobilise community assets and strengths and by developing the community's capacity and resources to make decisions and take action.
  • To engage a community as well as individuals seeking to effect change, organisations must be prepared to release control of actions or interventions to the community and be flexible enough to meet its changing needs.
  • A long-term commitment by the engaging organisation and its partners is vital.

To illustrate these key features, we turn to a case study of community engagement in practice (see Box 1).

We turn now to a consideration of the common challenges to be addressed when seeking to implement a community engagement approach.

Box 1: A case study in community engagement

Tasmanian Child and Family Centres

In 2009, funding for the establishment of Tasmanian Child and Family Centres (CFCs) was announced by the Tasmanian Government in response to an emerging body of research highlighting the importance of the early years (Department of Education Tasmania, n.d.). The Centres are places where families with young children (0-5 years) can gather informally to spend time together, spend time with other families and access a range of services (Department of Education Tasmania, n.d.). There are 12 CFCs in Tasmania, all of which are based in socially disadvantaged areas where there are significant concerns relating to the health and wellbeing of young children.

Community engagement was deemed necessary as part of the Tasmanian CFC initiative to ensure community buy-in to the initiative. Some of the communities - similar to many other socioeconomically disadvantaged communities - had poor rates of service use. There was a risk that if CFCs did not meet local communities' needs and expectations, they would not be used - or, at least, would not be used by the families who really needed them.

Community engagement for the purposes of the CFC initiative is ongoing. Engagement activities are led by the centres themselves, and have also involved the Tasmanian Early Years Foundation and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (McDonald et al., 2015; Taylor et al., 2015; Prichard et al., 2015). Although the level of intensity has differed between the 12 locations, the intensity of the community engagement process undertaken as part of the overall Tasmanian CFC initiative has been high.

Actual community engagement activities have included:

  • community-wide workshops during the planning phases of the project to establish what parents wanted and needed in their local community;
  • the establishment of Local Enabling Groups comprising parents and service providers from the local community who advise CFCs on issues of relevance to local communities;
  • the contribution of Local Enabling Groups to aspects of the design of CFC buildings; and
  • the development of Working Together Agreements (WTAs) for each individual CFC. The WTAs outline the expectations of parents and staff using the Centres and were developed collaboratively by the community. WTAs continue to evolve as parents, staff and the community develops and changes. The WTA serves as a "structure" for relationships within the Centre (McDonald et al., 2015).

The Family Partnership Model (FPM) (Davis & Day, 2010) has played a key role in the community engagement processes undertaken as part of the establishment and ongoing operation of CFCs (McDonald et al., 2015). The FPM has provided a structure for the process of community engagement, and a set of principles for how that engagement process should occur.

An evaluation by the Telethon Kids Institute (Taylor et al., 2015) found that the CFCs had a positive impact on parents' use and experiences of services and supports for young children. Parents reported that the CFCs were successfully engaging, supporting and working with families to give their children the best start in life. Parents experienced the centres as welcoming, respectful and inclusive places that were helping them develop positive child, family, school and community connections. Centre users judged their experiences of services and supports more positively than non-users on fundamental elements of place-based initiatives (i.e., joined-up working, capacity building, and flexible delivery), as well as best-practice principles from Australia's Early Years Learning Framework (i.e., secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships, partnerships, equity and respect for diversity).