Community engagement

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

What are the challenges of community engagement?

  • Ensuring representativeness - One of the challenges is how to ensure that those community members whose voices are heard are representative of the community. As Katz (2007) pointed out, not all members can engage in programs to the same degree, and many interventions actively involve only a small number of people (although the whole community is expected to benefit). But how do community members who actively participate by volunteering for management committees and the like represent other members of their community? For participants to be representative of the wider community it is necessary either that they are elected, or that they identify with it and have its interests at heart. In practice these criteria are seldom met.
  • Ensuring equity - Communities are diverse, and particular care needs to be taken to ensure that the less powerful voices and groups are engaged and not marginalised. This means including parents of diverse backgrounds, people with disabilities, youth, people from non-English-speaking backgrounds and Indigenous people.
  • Establishing community views - One can seek to establish community views by summing the separate opinions of individual community members (e.g., via surveys) or by seeking to establish the collective views of community members (e.g., by focus groups or community forums). There is much greater likelihood of obtaining a good understanding of the collective views of community members if they already meet regularly and have an opportunity to share experiences and develop emergent opinions about what they need. This is another reason why families need opportunities for regular contact with other families in safe settings (such as child and family centres) - these allow emergent opinions to develop and make it easier to engage with families at a group level (Moore, 2004).
  • Asking too much of community members - In seeking to involve community members in decision-making and partnerships there is a danger of asking too much of them, causing stress and exhaustion (Attree et al., 2011; Simpson et al., 2003). It is also important to avoid making community actions too dependent upon a few leaders, rather than building capacity across a wide range of community members.
  • Avoiding disillusionment - Community members may become disillusioned if the community engagement process does not lead to action that reflects their input. It is imperative that the professional services involved be fully committed to the process and willing and able to respond to the decision reached. A principal barrier to poor or disempowered people becoming involved in initiatives to address poverty is uncertainty regarding whether getting involved will actually achieve anything (Beresford & Hoban, 2005). Whatever else, if people are to be involved, then it is crucial that they can have a strong sense that something tangible and worthwhile will come out of initiatives. Overcoming previous bad experiences can also be a problem: some communities may be reluctant to be involved if they have been disillusioned by earlier initiatives which they perceive to have demonstrated few benefits (Beresford & Hoban, 2004; Cortis et al., 2009).
  • Establishing governance arrangements - For community engagement and partnerships to become standard practice and sustainable, they need to be embedded in ongoing governance arrangements. Without such arrangements, community engagement is likely to be too dependent upon the personal relationships built between particular professionals and community members, which are easily lost if the people involved change.
  • Government support - One of the challenges for ensuring that services are based on community engagement and community-service partnerships is what this looks like at senior levels of government. It is not realistic to have community representation at all levels of government. Community engagement is primarily a relational process that operates at a local level. Government's role is to create the conditions that allow the services they fund to engage effectively with those they serve. That includes giving services a degree of flexibility to respond to the emerging needs of communities, and being willing to respect and support the decisions reached by the partnership processes.
  • Changing professional practice - Studies of how well professionals are able to deliver family-centred practice have shown that there always tends to be a gap between the rhetoric and reality. This is likely to be the case with community engagement as well. Making community engagement standard practice in human services requires a paradigm shift in the nature of the relationship between professionals and clients, governments and citizens, service systems and communities (Dunston et al., 2009).
  • Changing management practice - The prevailing positivist tools and instruments of public administration (such as the use of private sector management methods and the competitive tendering out of services) are at odds with the collaborative partnership approaches that characterise effective community engagement (Boxelaar et al., 2006). A recent international survey of the practice of co-design suggested that, although co-design appeared to be maturing from principle to practicality, we have yet to see a consistent emergence of organisational cultures that support increases in collaborative service design (Bradwell & Marr, 2008).
  • Countering "professional drift" - There is the tendency for professionals to drift back into providing services in ways that best suit professionals and their views.
  • Building community engagement skills - Engaging communities and building successful partnerships requires new skills of professionals as well as parents (Realpe & Wallace, 2010). These include skills such as relationship building, conflict resolution, negotiation, communication and knowledge management (Boxelaar et al., 2006). The relationship between the consumer and the system or professional is arguably the most important element in the co-production venture (Dunston et al., 2009).
  • Service flexibility - For community engagement to achieve positive results, the service system needs to be flexible enough to respond to the emerging needs of communities. Typically services lack this flexibility, being tied to particular forms of delivery and locations. Allowing services greater freedom to deploy their resources is one way of enabling them to respond promptly to the emerging needs of families.
  • Restructuring professional roles - As well as requiring new skills of professionals, community engagement also demands more of their time. Currently few professionals have such time built into their roles and job descriptions.
  • Building supportive communities - Place-based initiatives tend to focus on building integrated service systems rather than more supportive communities. Yet supportive communities are of greater importance for families. Jack and Jordan (1999) went so far as to argue that building social networks in poor communities is a more effective way of promoting children's welfare than focusing on formal child protection and family support services, and efforts to increase parenting skills and responsibilities.

Access to services

There is a number of general strategies that could be implemented to enable access to community services by families with young children, including:

  • providing multiple opportunities for families of young children to meet;
  • ensuring that streets are safe and easily navigable; and
  • ensuring that there is an efficient and affordable local transport system that gives families ready access to services and to places where they meet other families (Moore, 2004).