Community engagement

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

Community engagement strategies: evidence they deliver outcomes to children and families

Community participation and engagement are complex and dynamic social processes that can be challenging to evaluate, particularly when assessing longer-term outcomes for children and families. Nevertheless, there is now sufficient evidence for increasingly thorough systematic reviews to be conducted (Attree et al., 2011; Bath & Wakerman, 2015; Milton et al., 2012; O'Mara-Eves et al., 2013; Rogers & Robinson, 2004), allowing us to draw some conclusions about the efficacy of community engagement strategies:

  • Rogers and Robinson (2004) concluded that, at its best, community engagement can empower citizens, make a significant difference to the way services are designed and run, and secure widely valued policy outcomes. It evidently also works best when communities are engaged across a range of services.
  • Attree et al. (2011) found that the majority of "engaged" individuals in the studies they reviewed reported benefits for their physical and psychological health, self-confidence, self-esteem, sense of personal empowerment and social relationships. However, they also found evidence of unintended negative consequences for some participants in the form of stress and exhaustion resulting from the demands of the engagement process.
  • A rapid review by Milton et al. (2012) found no evidence of positive impacts on population health or the quality of services, but some evidence of positive impacts on housing, crime, social capital and community empowerment.
  • Bath and Wakerman (2015) found a small but substantial body of evidence that community participation is associated with improved health outcomes. They also found a limited body of evidence that community participation is associated with intermediate outcomes such as service access, utilisation, quality and responsiveness that ultimately contribute to health outcomes.
  • The most exhaustive review of the evidence has been conducted by O'Mara-Eves et al. (2013). They concluded that there is solid evidence that community engagement interventions have a positive impact on a range of health and psychosocial outcomes, across various conditions. There is also weak and inconsistent evidence that different types of community engagement interventions can be cost-effective. At this stage, there is insufficient evidence - particularly for long-term outcomes and indirect beneficiaries - to determine whether one particular model of community engagement is likely to be more effective than any other, and there is weak evidence from the effectiveness and process evaluations that certain implementation factors may affect intervention success.

Overall, despite some inconsistencies in the evidence, it is clear that community engagement can have beneficial effects for those involved, with direct effects for the health, wellbeing and empowerment of communities and community members. However, it is not clear what forms or features of community engagement are associated with these effects. This is the question we explore next.