Understanding common approaches to working with clients, communities and other stakeholders

Content type
Short article

April 2021


Mitchell Bowden, Shae Johnson

Service organisations are increasingly being asked to involve clients, communities and other stakeholders when designing and delivering services.3,10 Terms such as collaboration, community engagement and co-design are often used interchangeably, despite having different meanings and purposes. A misunderstanding of key concepts can impact planning, communication and resource allocation, as well as outcomes for families.14 This short article explores the key features of these concepts to support service managers and program planners to select and adopt the best approach for their situation.

What are common approaches to working with clients, communities and other stakeholders?

Three common approaches to working with clients, communities and other stakeholders are outlined in Table 1. Understanding these different approaches can help to prevent duplication of effort, create innovative solutions to difficult problems and promote shared ownership of outcomes; ultimately creating more relevant and sustainable results.10,14


Individuals or organisations work together to address problems and develop solutions that may not be possible or as effective if working separately.1 While the formality of arrangements and the different activities involved can vary, collaboration generally includes agreement on:

  • what problems or issues need attention
  • how to approach the response
  • who is responsible for each task.11

Community engagement

Community engagement incorporates the voices of those who will be affected by a decision to ensure its appropriateness and encourage shared ownership of any outcomes.7 Stakeholders need to be meaningfully involved and information should clearly communicate how their input will affect the decision.13 These activities should be tailored to local needs and can include:

  • public meetings
  • surveys and polling
  • workshops
  • online discussions
  • advisory groups.12


Co-design (or collaborative design) is a method for designing and implementing a project (i.e. program, service or activity) with clients and other stakeholders.2 Responsibility is deliberately and systematically shared across the engaged group to:

  • identify priorities
  • make decisions
  • prototype and test
  • monitor outcomes
  • scale solutions.5
 CollaborationCommunity engagementCo-design
WhoCollaboration is more common between organisations but can also occur between organisations and their clients and communities.Community engagement focuses on the voices of clients and communities. It may also include stakeholder organisations (i.e. peak or advocacy bodies).Co-design relies on input from a representative group of clients, communities and other stakeholders (e.g. experts, organisations and governments).
WhenCollaboration can occur at any stage in the development of a program/activity. It can be ongoing or a once-off.Community engagement seeks feedback on something specific – commonly key decisions or development stages.Co-design requires the involvement of stakeholders in the entire process of decision making and development.6
Responsibility and decision makingResponsibility is shared by those involved. 
Decision making may be centralised (e.g. in a consortium) or diffused (e.g. in a community of practice).11
Overall responsibility lies with the organisation. 
End-users should have influence in decision making.9
Ultimate responsibility lies with the organisation. 
Influence and decision-making power are shared across the engaged group.15


While the benefits of working with clients, communities and other stakeholders are numerous, these approaches can be time and resource intensive, especially when managing relationships and expectations, and ensuring effective power sharing and communication.4 Evidence suggests co-design is the most resource intensive approach.15

What does this mean for practice?

As needs and identified issues vary within and across different client, community and stakeholder groups, there is no standard set of steps to follow.8 However, service managers and program planners can use the following principles to support their implementation:

  1. Keep it local 
    Seek to understand if and how your clients’, communities’ and other stakeholders’ needs relate to the program or activity you’re planning; then consider the best approach to working with them.9 Each group may need to be engaged with separately to ensure meaningful participation.
  2. Clarify your approach 
    Once you’ve determined your approach, communicate it clearly to those involved to manage expectations.2
  3. Focus on relationships and access 
    Relationships are central to these approaches – hone your interpersonal and relationship skills. You should consider equity and remove any access barriers (i.e. language, location, facilities) for those who may experience them.3
  4. Avoid fatigue 
    At any given time, clients, communities and other stakeholders may be involved with or consulted by multiple organisations. Avoid over-burdening the same groups and agencies and seek to engage with those who may not have had opportunities to participate.14


The benefits of working with clients, communities and other stakeholders are achieved in both the process and the outcomes produced. However, working together is not always successful for professionals, communities or stakeholders every time. Applying the principles outlined in this short article can help to reduce resource burden, nurture relationships with communities and provide longer-lasting outcomes for families.

Further reading and related resources

The travel companion: Your guide to working with others for social outcomes 
This guide provides further guidance on choosing the right approach to working with others, from defining the purpose to planning and monitoring success.


Partnership practice guide 
This VCOSS guide summarises key considerations for collaboration – from preparing to partner, to sustaining the partnership.

Partnering resources 
The Partnership Brokers Association, based in the UK, provides workbooks, guides and case studies to step professionals through managing a partnership and overcoming challenges.

Partnerships analysis tool 
This VicHealth tool helps professionals clarify the purpose of collaboration, reflect on their partnerships and consider opportunities for strengthening them.

Mabels case study 
Led by Eastern Community Legal Centre, Mabels is an example of collaboration across multiple sectors to improve service access and client outcomes.

Community engagement

Community engagement resources and guides 
The Bang the Table website provides resources, guides and case examples to step professionals through various online and in-person community engagement activities.

Index of Community Engagement Techniques 
This Tamarack Institute index describes community engagement techniques across a spectrum of community engagement.


Doing co-design for real: mindsets, methods and movements 
The Beyond Sticky Notes website provides resources for professionals with varying levels of experience – from introductory to in-depth step-by-step guides on co-design.

Co-design Resource Bank 
This TACSI information hub includes written and digital learning resources on planning and managing co-design activities.

The Our Site project case study 
Led by Women with Disabilities Australia, the Our Site project is an example of a website co-designed by women and girls with disabilities.


1. Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth. (2013). Fact sheet 1: What is collaboration? Canberra: ARACY. Retrieved from www.aracy.org.au/publications-resources/area?command=record&id=21

2. Burkett, I. (2017). An introduction to co-design. Sydney: Knode. Retrieved from ingridburkett.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Introduction-to-Codesign-2.pdf

3. Christensen, H. (2018). Legislating community engagement at the Australian local government level. Commonwealth Journal of Local Governance, 21, Article ID 6515.

4. Cooper, M., Evans, Y., & Pybis, J. (2015). Interagency collaboration in children and young people’s mental health: A systematic review of outcomes, facilitating factors and inhibiting factors. Child: Care, Health and Development, 42(3), 325–342.

5. Design Council. (2013). Design for public good. London: Design Council. Retrieved from www.designcouncil.org.uk/resources/report/design-public-good

6. Evans, M., & Terrey, N. (2016). Co-design with citizens and stakeholders. In G. Stoker, & M. Evans (Eds.), Evidence-based policy making in the social sciences: Methods that matter (pp. 243–262). Bristol: Bristol University Press, Policy Press.

7. International Association of Public Participation. (2017). Core values for the practice of public participation. Retrieved from www.iap2.org/page/corevalues

8. Marjolin, A., Powell, A., & Muir, K. (2015). The travel companion: Your guide to working with others for social outcomes. Sydney: The Centre for Social Impact.

9. Moore, T. (2017). Authentic engagement: The nature and role of the relationship at the heart of effective practice. Keynote address at ARACY Parent Engagement Conference – Maximising every child’s potential – Melbourne, 7 June. Retrieved from www.rch.org.au/uploadedFiles/Main/Content/ccchdev/CCCH-ARACY-Parent-Engagement-Conference17-Paper-Oct2017.pdf

10. Moore, T., McDonald, M., McHugh-Dillon, H., & West, S. (2016). Community engagement: A key strategy for improving outcomes for Australian families (CFCA Paper No. 39). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

11. Price-Robertson, R., Kirkwood, D., Dean, A., Hall, T., Paterson, N., & Broadley, K. (2020). Working together to keep families safe (CFCA Paper No. 53). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

12. Rowe, G., & Frewer, L. (2005). A typology of public engagement mechanisms. Science, Technology and Human Values, 30(2), 251–290.

13. Tamarack Institute. (2018). Community engagement: A foundational practice of community change. Toronto, Canada: Tamarack Community Change Festival.

14. Tembo, D., Hickey, G., Montenegro, C., Chandler, D., Nelson, E., Porter, K. et al. (2021). Effective engagement and involvement with community stakeholders in the co-production of global health research. British Medical Journal, 372(178). doi: 10.1136/bmj.n178.

15. Zamenopoulos, T., & Alexiou, K. (2018). Co-design as collaborative research. In K. Facer & K. Dunleavy (Eds.), Connected communities foundation series. Bristol: University of Bristol/AHRC Connected Communities Programme.