Community engagement

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

Evidence for key features of effective community engagement

As noted above, the review by O'Mara-Eves et al. (2013) concluded that the available evidence does not provide much guidance regarding the particular features that make community engagement effective. However, we can gain some idea of the key features of effective community engagement strategies by reviewing what is known about effective practices in some closely related fields, and looking for convergent evidence regarding best practices. These fields are: place-based approaches; community development; co-design and co-production approaches; and family-centred and community-centred practice. In what follows, evidence from these different sources is explored for the light they can shed on community engagement.

Place-based approaches

Addressing wicked problems through place-based approaches requires new strategies (APSC, 2007; Head, 2008; Hickie, 2011; Moore & Fry, 2011; Moore, 2014; Moore et al., 2014; Wilks et al., 2015; Wise, 2013). For example, a recent review of Commonwealth place-based initiatives (Wilks et al., 2015) identified common principles for place-based design and delivery including:

  • flexible delivery - demonstrating a flexible approach to service delivery according to community needs, as well as a flexible approach to expenditure of funding; and,
  • local autonomy - involving the local community (organisations and individuals) through consultation and active involvement in decisions.

Further, a recent review of the national and international evidence regarding place-based initiatives (Moore et al., 2014) identified the following strategies as critical for effective place-based initiatives:

  • use multi-level approaches that simultaneously address the conditions under which families are raising young children and provide direct services and supports to meet their emerging needs;
  • engage a wide range of stakeholders in a place-based partnership to provide a strong basis for delivering multi-level interventions;
  • improve the communication between communities and services;
  • engage service users in co-production/co-design of services;
  • build local competencies;
  • adapt interventions to local circumstances and needs;
  • engage local communities in planning and designing services; and
  • allow greater flexibility in service delivery models, and building local capacity.

Community development

The second relevant field of practice is community development. Here there has been a long tradition of work aimed at rebuilding communities that have become dysfunctional (Gamble & Weil, 2010; Katz, 2007; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993; McCashen, 2004; McKnight & Block, 2010; Wiseman, 2006). There are a number of useful summaries of the evidence regarding the key features of effective community development (Hughes et al., 2007; Gamble & Weil, 2010; Katz, 2007; Tucker, 2001; West, 2004; West et al., 2006; Wiseman, 2006). According to Katz (2007), the key principles behind community development approaches are as follows:

  • start from communities' own needs and priorities rather than those dictated from outside;
  • "On tap not on top": give leadership to people in the community and act as a resource to them;
  • work with people, don't do things to or for them;
  • help people to recognise and value their own skills, knowledge and expertise as well as opening up access to outsider resources and experience;
  • encourage people to work collectively, not individually, so that they can gain confidence and strength from each other (although this experience often benefits individuals as well);
  • encourage community leaders to be accountable, to ensure that as many people as possible are informed and given the opportunity to participate;
  • recognise that people often learn most effectively by doing - opportunities for learning and training are built into everyday working;
  • support people to participate in making the decisions which affect them and work with decision-makers to open up opportunities for them to do so; and
  • promote social justice and mutual respect.

The key themes in this list, echoed in other accounts, are establishing partnerships, basing services on local needs, and building capacity. The idea of building community capacity - that is, strengthening the capacity of communities to solve their own collective problems - is central to community development approaches (Chaskin, 2001, 2009; Chaskin et al., 2001; Lohoar et al., 2013; Noya et al., 2009).

Co-design / co-production

Another relevant body of work relates to the co-production or co-design of services, which involves a partnership between service providers and service users. This has been proposed as a way of reforming public services (2020 Public Services Trust, 2010; Adams & Nelson, 1995; Boxelaar et al., 2006; Boyle et al., 2010; Bradwell & Marr, 2008; Clarkson, 2015; Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, 2011; Dunston et al., 2009; Gannon & Lawson, 2008; Hopkins & Meredyth, 2008; Lenihan, 2009; Lenihan & Briggs, 2011; McShane, 2010; Stephens et al., 2008), and changing how government works together with stakeholders, communities and ordinary citizens to achieve societal goals and solve complex issues (Lenihan & Briggs, 2011). Co-design seeks to make public services match the wants and needs of their beneficiaries (Bradwell & Marr, 2008). The rationale for this approach is that people's needs are better met when they are involved in an equal and reciprocal relationship with public service professionals and others, working together to get things done (Boyle et al., 2010). The returns from this engagement are more responsive, fit-for-purpose, efficient public services. More broadly, co-design provides an avenue for addressing a disengagement from politics and democracy, and building social capital (Bradwell & Marr, 2008).

Co-production/co-design is not a one-size-fits-all approach but needs to be tailored to the particular circumstances (Pestoff, 2014).

Key features of co-production/co-design have been identified (Dunston et al., 2009; Lenihan & Briggs, 2011; Pestoff, 2014; Realpe & Wallace, 2010). Realpe and Wallace (2010) concluded that co-production/co-design requires:

  • users to be experts in their own circumstances and capable of making decisions;
  • professionals to move from being fixers to facilitators; and
  • a relocation of power towards service users, necessitating new relationships with front-line professionals who need training to be empowered to take on these new roles.

Dunston et al. (2009) showed that co-production/co-design involves a major shift in the relationship between service deliverers and users: "doing with, rather than doing to and doing for". Rather than privileging professional knowledge and expertise over and above consumer knowledge and expertise, co-production views consumers working with and alongside professionals as "necessary, expert and generative co-producers" (Dunston et al., 2009, p. 40).

In co-production/co-design, the relationship between service providers and users must be balanced, with neither party having too much influence or control: "Both the client and the service provider have a role to play in, and a contribution to make to, the achievement of the goals of the service" (Lenihan & Briggs, 2011, p. 36).

The key features of co-design and co-production include establishing partnerships with consumers in which decisions about what, where, and how services are delivered are made jointly, with power shared equally.

Family-centred and community-centred practice

Family-centred practice is relevant to this consideration of community engagement because it represents the same principles and practices at an individualised level. Family-centred practice involves engaging individual families in partnerships and working with them to build their capacity to meet their own needs more effectively (Bailey et al., 2012; Dunst, 1997; Dunst et al., 2007, 2008; Kuo et al., 2012; Moore & Larkin, 2006; Rosenbaum et al., 1998; Rouse, 2012; Trivette & Dunst, 2000). Numerous statements of the key principles of family-centred practice and family-centred care exist (e.g., Bailey et al., 2012; Dunst, 1997; Dunst et al., 2007, 2008; Kuo et al., 2012; Moore & Larkin, 2006; Rosenbaum et al., 1998; Rouse, 2012; Trivette & Dunst, 2000).

According to Dunst et al. (2008), family-centred practices are characterised by:

  • beliefs and practices that treat families with dignity and respect;
  • practices that are individualised, flexible, and responsive to family situations;
  • information sharing so that families can make informed decisions;
  • family choice regarding any number of aspects of program practices and intervention options;
  • parent-professional collaboration and partnerships as a context for family-program relations; and,
  • the active involvement of families in the mobilisation of resources and supports necessary for them to care for and rear their children in ways that produce optimal child, parent, and family benefits.

Translating these principles into effective help-giving involves three components (Dunst et al., 2007):

  • Relational practices - include behaviours typically associated with effective help-giving (active listening, compassion, empathy, etc);
  • Participatory practices - involving parents in decision-making and building their capacities; and
  • Technical quality - professional knowledge, skills, and competencies.

The evidence indicates that all three of these components need to be present for help-giving to be truly effective in empowering families (Dunst et al., 2007).

Recent literature reviews and meta-analyses of research across a wide range of medical and early intervention service sectors have consistently shown that family-centred practices have positive effects in a diverse array of child and family domains. These include: more efficient use of services; decreased health care costs; family satisfaction with services; family wellbeing; building child and family strengths; parenting practices; and improved health or developmental outcomes for children (American Academy of Paediatrics, 2012; Dempsey & Keen, 2008; Dunst et al., 2007, 2008; Dunst & Trivette, 2009; Gooding et al., 2011; Kuhlthau et al., 2011; McBroom & Enriquez, 2009; Raspa et al., 2010; Rosenbaum et al., 1998).

It is clear that the key features of effective family-centred practices involve the same key features previously identified: establishing partnerships, basing services on individual needs and building capacity. Community engagement shares these same principles, and may be best understood as community-centred practice. This means the application of family-centred practice at a community level where, rather than individual practitioners engaging with individual families, the service system seeks to engage the community of families.


Despite the relative paucity of direct evidence regarding the key features of effective community engagement, there is a considerable convergent evidence from the related fields just outlined that provides consistent support for a common set of characteristics that underpin effective community engagement strategies:

Core features of effective community engagement strategies

Community engagement involves:

  • starting from the community's own needs and priorities rather than those dictated from outside;
  • inviting and building local autonomy, giving leadership to people in the community and acting as a resource to them;
  • building the capacity of families and the community to meet their own needs more effectively;
  • having a flexible service system that can be tailored to meet local needs;
  • balanced partnerships between providers and consumers based on mutual trust and respect;
  • working with the community rather than doing things for them or to them;
  • information sharing so that the community can make informed decisions; and
  • providing the community with choices regarding services and intervention options.

These core features confirm the definition of community engagement provided earlier, and indicate that community engagement is best represented by the fourth level on the continuum discussed earlier.