Community engagement

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

Why is community engagement important?

There is a range of reasons why community engagement should be an important feature of future service development.

Traditional service approaches are not succeeding

There is evidence that existing forms of service are not succeeding in improving outcomes and are not fully utilised, especially by families with multiple and complex needs (Moore & McDonald, 2013; Centre for Community Child Health, 2010a). Despite intensive, well-intentioned and well-designed human service initiatives, some Australian communities have been "left behind" as others prosper (Vinson, 2009; Vinson et al., 2015). In a report investigating community-level disadvantage in Australia, Dropping off the Edge (DotE), Vinson et al. (2015) concluded that the communities that were identified as significantly disadvantaged in 2014 were generally the same as those identified in the three earlier DotE studies (from 1999, 2004 and 2007). In seeking to improve outcomes in these communities, we could adopt a person-focused approach rather than a place-focused approach (a distinction noted by Wilks et al., 2015) and seek to help individuals achieve better personal outcomes or even leave the location. However, if overall improvements in these communities are to be achieved, a different approach to the design and/or delivery of services is needed. It may be that the complexity of the problems in these communities is such that traditional approaches to addressing the problems have been ineffective. We cannot know what these communities need without better understanding their aspirations, concerns and values.

Community engagement can play an important role in this respect. It has been argued that conventional public service reform in the UK is failing because its design fails to grasp that neither markets nor centralised bureaucracies are effective models for delivering public services based on relationships (Stephens et al., 2008). The public service reform agenda cannot succeed simply by the top down imposition of centralised targets or more market based choice (2020 Public Services Trust, 2010; Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, 2011). A new approach is needed.

If governments fail to move to a partnership approach to client services, they will become increasingly ineffective at achieving the goals of those services. (Lenihan & Briggs, 2011, p. 43)

Community engagement can lead to improved outcomes

A second justification for community engagement is that it can lead to improved outcomes for communities - the "substantive justification" (Burton et al., 2006). Figure 1 outlines the logic of this claim. As this shows: when institutions (a) seek out the aspirations, concerns and values of communities; and communities (b) share their aspirations, concerns and values with institutions; and these aspirations, concerns and values of communities are (c) incorporated into decision-making processes; the institutions are better able to meet the needs of communities - essentially as a result of being better informed. Establishing an effective partnership between service systems and communities results in a greater sense of ownership, greater take-up of services, and better outcomes for children and families (Yeboah, 2005). This would in turn lead to improved outcomes for communities as a result of interventions and approaches that are tailored to the unique aspirations, concerns and values of that community. According to our definition of community engagement, all of the interactions that are involved in those processes would be informed by the principles of integrity, inclusion, deliberation, and influence.

Figure 1: The logic of community engagement for service delivery

Figure 1: The logic of community engagement for service delivery. Described in accompanying text.

The damaging effects of non-participation

Meaningful community engagement is critical because of the evidence that non-participation in its various forms is damaging for health and wellbeing (Marmot, 2004, 2006, 2015; Wilkinson, 2005, Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Non-participation is known to lead to feelings of powerlessness, which leads to feelings of chronic stress, with adverse consequences for health and wellbeing.

Participation should be understood both in terms of access - being included in valued social settings and activities - and in terms of agency - feeling that one is able to contribute meaningfully to those activities. Non-participation may take the form of exclusion from valued settings and activities (e.g., through unemployment, disability, poverty) and/or having no capacity to shape what happens in those settings or activities. Building on these ideas of agency and participation, Moore and Oberklaid (2014) proposed that people's wellbeing involves having the functional capabilities to participate meaningfully in all aspects of one's life. The notion of functional capabilities is similar to the Capabilities Approach championed by Sen (1985, 2005) and Nussbaum (2011). Community engagement is a way of ensuring that community members have access to valued social settings and activities, feel that they are able to contribute meaningfully to those activities, and develop functional capabilities that enable them to participate fully.

Community engagement as a human right

There is a rights-based argument for community engagement and participation. For instance, the United Nations-sponsored Brisbane Declaration on Community Engagement (International Conference on Engaging Communities, 2005) acknowledged "the universal interest and importance of community engagement, founded in the inherent dignity of people and the values, rights and responsibilities of all people expressed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights" (p. 1). Regardless of the evidence to indicate its effectiveness, it could be argued that community engagement - that is, the process whereby the public contributes to decision-making processes - is a fundamental civic right. Indeed, proponents of this view hold that community engagement is the key to participatory - as opposed to merely representative - democracy. Community engagement reflects the right of citizens to be involved in governance beyond the ballot box and a necessary constant exchange between governors and the governed (Khan, 2005; Lowndes et al., 2006).

Together, these four reasons add up to a powerful rationale for the use of community engagement strategies in future service development.