Community engagement

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

What is community engagement?

There is no commonly agreed definition of community engagement (Butteriss, 2014; Hind, 2010; O'Mara-Eves et al., 2013; Stuart, 2011), and the term is often used interchangeably with a number of other concepts - such as consultation, participation, collaboration and empowerment - all of which are related to community engagement but do not capture all aspects of the concept (Cornwall, 2008; Hartz-Karp, 2007; Melo & Baiocchi, 2006).

For the Tamarack Institute in Canada (, community engagement means "people working collaboratively, through inspired action and learning, to create and realise bold visions for their common future". For Cavaye (2004), community engagement is "mutual communication and deliberation that occurs between government and citizens that allows citizens and government to participate mutually in the formulation of policy and the provision of government services" (p. 3). This necessarily means participation with a community of people, rather than an individual citizen, and needs to incorporate the diversity and dynamics of communities.

According to the USDHHS (2011), community engagement is "the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people" (p. 7).

Community engagement is often depicted as a continuum, ranging from low-level engagement strategies such as consultation to high-level strategies such as empowerment (Arnstein, 1969; Cavaye, 2004; Doherty & Beaton, 2000; Lenihan, 2009; IAP2, 2014; Tamarack Institute, 2003; USDHHS, 2011). The International Association for Public Participation's public participation spectrum (Table 1) is typical of the kind of distinctions made between different levels of participation (IAP2, 2014).

One key point to note about this continuum is where the power lies at each of the five levels in the IAP2's Public Participation Spectrum (see Table 1). In the first three levels, the final decisions rest with the professionals, while in the fifth level power has been transferred completely to the consumers or citizens. Only at the fourth level is there a genuine sharing of power. The use of the word "empower" for the fifth level is misleading, as it implies that this is the only level at which empowerment occurs. However, the collaborative partnerships established at the fourth level also entail empowerment: for community members and groups to act as true partners with professionals necessarily involves power-sharing and capacity-building.

One question to be addressed is whether these different forms of participation can all be regarded as forms of community engagement, or whether we should reserve that term for one or more of the different levels. "Informing" and "consulting" are sometimes viewed as forms of community engagement, but informing and consulting with a community are not the same as ensuring that they are meaningfully involved in the decision-making process. The fourth level on the participation continuum - full collaborative partnerships between service systems and communities - can be seen as incorporating all the practices described at the previous three levels - informing, consulting and involving. These lower level forms of participation can be regarded as necessary but not sufficient to constitute full community engagement.

Table 1: IAP2's Public Participation Spectrum
  Inform Consult Involve Collaborate Empower
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION GOAL To provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives or decisions To work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution To place final decision-making in the hands of the public
PROMISE TO THE PUBLIC We will keep you informed. We will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and aspirations, and provide feedback on how public input influenced that decision. We will seek your feedback on drafts and proposals. We will work with you to ensure that your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the alternatives developed and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision. We will look to you for direct advice and innovation in formulating solutions and incorporate your advice and recommendations into the decision to the maximum extent possible. We will implement what you decide.

Although the first three levels might not qualify as community engagement according to our definition, they may be appropriate strategies to use for some purposes. However, it is the fourth level of community participation and engagement that is needed when working with disadvantaged or marginalised communities (CCCH, 2010; Vinson, 2009) and when addressing complex or "wicked" problems (Grint, 2010; Lenihan, 2009). As Grint (2010) noted:

Tame problems might have individual solutions in the sense that an individual is likely to know how to deal with it. But since Wicked Problems are partly defined by the absence of an answer on the part of the leader then it behoves the individual leader to … engage the collective in an attempt to come to terms with the problem. (p. 4)

Hence, unless they are meaningfully engaged disadvantaged and marginalised groups are less likely to make use of or benefit from services.

In the light of this discussion, we conceptualise community engagement as a process 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.

This is in line with the United Nations Brisbane Declaration on Community Engagement (International Conference on Engaging Communities, 2005) which envisages community engagement as a two way process by which:

  • the aspirations, concerns, needs and values of citizens and communities are incorporated at all levels and in all sectors in policy development, planning, decision-making, service delivery and assessment; and
  • governments and other business and civil society organisations involve citizens, clients, communities and other stakeholders in these processes.

The establishment of an ongoing partnership between services and communities is seen as the means by which these processes can be achieved and sustained.