Community engagement

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

Conclusions and implications for practice

Conclusions

Properly understood, community engagement represents a paradigm shift in the way that governments and services do business. By engaging communities in full partnerships and sharing decision-making with them, governments and services are making a significant shift from traditional ways of determining policies and services. While not easy to achieve, such a change in practice has the capacity to improve the responsiveness and effectiveness of professional services.

Effective community engagement is built upon three key practices whereby a service system:

  • proactively seeks out community values, concerns and aspirations;
  • incorporates those values, concerns and aspirations into a decision-making process or processes; and
  • establishes an ongoing partnership with the community to ensure that the community's priorities and values continue to shape services and the service system.

Community engagement is both an end in itself and a means to an end. It is an end in itself in that families value a service system that understands and is responsive to their needs, and meaningful participation (such as through joint decision-making) has positive benefits for people's health and wellbeing. Community engagement is also a means to an end, in that it enables the development and delivery of services that are more attuned to community concerns and needs, and that ultimately lead to positive changes in parenting and family functioning. Community engagement is thus the medium through which a service system delivers more effective and responsive services, and communities are actively involved in designing services and social supports to meet their needs more effectively. As such, community engagement is a key strategy for improving outcomes for Australian children and their families.

Implications for practice

  • To build supportive social networks and reduce social isolation, service systems should provide safe settings for families of young children to meet, ensure that streets are safe and easily navigable, and ensure that there is an efficient and affordable local transport system.
  • To avoid inadvertently causing undue stress and exhaustion in community members, professionals should check regularly as to whether they are asking too much of them and coordinate with each other when multiple services are trying to engage with the same community.
  • To avoid disillusioning communities, services and service systems must be prepared to honour the choices made through the community engagement process.
  • To ensure the community engagement and partnerships become standard practice and sustainable, they need to be embedded in ongoing governance arrangements.
  • To support community engagement at local levels, government policies and funding should be designed to support local flexibility, respect local decision-making, and provide funding support to address locally-determined objectives.
  • To ensure that professionals are being consistently true to community engagement principles and practices, and are responding to collective family needs, regular feedback from communities should be sought.
  • To enable professionals to engage communities effectively, they will need training and support in a range of new skills, including relationship building, conflict resolution, negotiation, communication, and knowledge management.
  • To enable the service system to respond flexibly to community needs, agencies will need funding and staffing strategies that enable services to be reconfigured rapidly.
  • To give professionals time for community engagement activities, their roles and job descriptions may need to be reconfigured..