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 both approaches.
Most models of community development advocate for community involvement in decision-making, as a critical element of empowerment, if not they suggest ownership and stewardship. Why, because this helps to build capacity and/or community resilience… the concept being that by giving people the responsibility and the tools to succeed (and permission to fail) builds their capacity and resilience. Community engagement has a similar ethos, in that at its core lies the principle that people have a role to play in decisions that affect 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 downside of this is that organisations that haven’t shared responsibility for decisions are less likely to get interest or buy into the outcomes. This 'consult' style of engagement, while necessary, only ever asks the community to give feedback. But to what degree does feedback without responsibility mean that we are giving people the chance to offer views that are unrealistic and then criticise the outcomes long after the feedback has been given? "I told you what I want and you haven’t delivered" On the other hand, 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 a more nuanced approach as you need to have people and not just opinions in the room. Yet, time and again, responsibility, means that those people now have skin in the game and that changes how people deliberate. It is not uncommon for someone that is staunchly opposed to a project to become an advocate for that same project based on their experience of inclusion and responsibility sharing. Many organisations fear an approach that asks more of the community because of the perceived loss of control. But the reality is that sharing control can actually deliver more control. Giving people more responsibility doesn’t mean the organisation relinquishes its 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 opinion sharing gives way to a need to deliberate, which means someone that is holding an ‘either/or’ position needs to find a way to explore the ‘and/both’ perspective. When responsibility is shared, the organsiation may (or may not get) their preferred outcome, but it still gets a decision that meets all the required social, environmental and economic factors.
Which is what the organisation wants…isn’t it?