Written by: Joel Levin
For many organisations, community engagement is a set of ‘strategies’ strung together to either gather community opinion or to inform the community of a given scenario. Coming from the community development sector and having worked with community engagement for a number of years, I have often wondered about the overlap and the impact of one on the other.
Most models of community development advocate community involvement in decision-making, if not ownership and stewardship as a critical element of empowerment. Most often referred to as building capacity or community resilience… the concept being that by giving people the responsibility and then the supporting them to implement this responsibility builds their capacity and therefore the resilience is enhanced. Community engagement appears to have a similar ethos, in that at its core lies the principal that people have a role to play in the decisions that effect their lives. However, the time pressures of any given situation means that the most dominant model of engagement is to consult (seek people’s opinion).
There is no questioning that this approach is simpler and that it fits well with the ‘project’ mentality that most initiatives have been conceived within. The down side of this is that the organisation hasn’t shared responsibility for the decisions therefore they are less likely to get interest or buy into the outcomes. The consult style of engagement, while necessary and useful, only ever asks the community to give feedback. But to what degree does feedback without responsibility mean someone gets the chance to criticise long after the feedback has been given?
If I told you what I want and you haven’t delivered, whose fault is that?
Getting people more involved with the responsibility of decision making means they need to take more responsibility for balancing the variety of competing needs that any ‘project’ faces. This is definitely messier as you need to have people in the room and not just opinions (on both side) but those people who definitely have skin in the game. It is not uncommon for someone that is staunchly opposed to a project to become an advocate based on their experience of inclusion and responsibility sharing.
Many organisations fear an approach that asks more of the community because in turn they ask the organisation to relinquish some of its control. But the reality is that sharing control can actually deliver more control. Giving people more responsibility doesn’t mean the organisation relinquishes their accountability. As such, the organisation has every right to ask those with responsibility for the decision to balance all the elements that need balancing, before adopting the decision. The person with the responsibility for a decision, automatically ALSO has the responsibility to balance competing needs and requirements. From a community or stakeholder perspective, this means that opinions gives way to deliberation, that someone holding an ‘either/or’ position, needs finding ways to make it about ‘and/both’.
When responsibility is shared, control can remain….maybe not for what the final decision is but for ensuring the decision meets all the required social, environmental, economic and at times political realities that need to be considered. Which is what the organisation wants…isn’t it?