5 real ways you can put Community back in to Community Engagement

Over the last four or five years professionalism has started to creep more and more in to the field of Community Engagement. Focused qualifications, specific modules in University degrees and salaries/contracts increasingly matching or growing beyond the levels of those in other professions where the stakeholder is the focus. With climate change now a focus of many responsible governments around the world we are also starting to see the language of community engagement being used on a global scale with the likes of citizens juries and assemblies, deliberation and co-creation all being widely used.

Whilst for those working in or wanting to work as a Community Engagement Practitioner this is great news as our work is in the spotlight, others are asking our advice and the practice itself is leaping forward extremely fast. But as we have advanced the field so quickly have we forgotten the one key element of why we do this… the community.

The reason we do community engagement, by common definition, is to provide opportunities to gain an exchange between an organisation and a community for a range of social and organisational outcomes. But those who are long in the tooth and have worked in the game for a long time also know that it goes a little beyond that and is more than the tools and techniques we hear and are taught about today. What about the ongoing listening, the need for empathy, building relationships outside a ‘project’ and most importantly one of the key outcomes of all this, trust and keeping it.

So rather than go on a rant about the possible issues of professionalism now in community engagement, lets focus on the community and how we put them back in to community engagement. What’s the best way to do this… 5 real life examples of how organisations/individuals have not forgotten about community in their work of course and how they are ‘putting community back in to community engagement’.

  1. An old but a goody. I have shared this a few times in the last couple of years but I do love how design firm Studio Shelf sets itself up once a month in public spaces across Cape Town in order to connect and interact with curious people on the street. For me this is a brilliant yet simple idea for putting your community at the heart of your community engagement. Shared via the Pop-Up City website these designers make Cape Town’s public space’s their office so that real people can get involved and find out what they’re doing. ‘It keeps us on our toes, forces us to be aware of our role as designers and is a fairly stark reminder that what we design has a real effect on the world.’ Imagine if your local council did this? Check it out here — https://popupcity.net/observations/designers-make-cape-towns-public-space-their-office/
  2. Coffee with Council was recently floated by Glenwood Springs City Council (USA) in the hope to engage the community more directly. Setting up time with elected officials including the Mayor, each month, at a local cafe, this is a simple way of putting the community at the heart of your listening. The council has highlighted that — “We will need input on specific street projects, on how to update and improve the spring cleanup service, planning for South Glenwood and Sixth Street, restructuring of Ride Glenwood services and our public art plan, just to name a few,” and most crucially “We encourage and welcome public involvement.” This is actually something I floated at a previous council I worked at many years ago, but for them it was too hard. But it’s not, is it. This is the perfect relationship builder for all involved. Follow the story here at Post Independent or on Twitter — @GlenwoodPI and council @CityofGWS.
  3. Are you seeking leaders in your own community so you can support them and they can take ownership of things that happen in their community? No! Why not? City of Marion (South Australia) are. By identifying and supporting leaders in your community through training and mentoring you will certainly be putting the community back in your community engagement. The City of Marion Community Leadership Program in this case aims to create community capacity building in the council area. ‘The Community Leadership Program gives participants the skills and confidence to develop their own community project, motivate and encourage others to assume leadership roles in the community and develop as a leader. The program is a combination of interactive workshops and offsite project work, working with council staff and community mentors.’ See more, including a video, here: https://www.marion.sa.gov.au/services-we-offer/community-leadership-program.
  4. The last three examples have been focussed on great ways of working everyday that can easily put your community back in to community engagement. But what about those focused engagement projects we often get given where community input needs to be more than just tick box tools and techniques. Where the community has to be listened to and be at the heart of all you do. Well, Becky Hirst has this down pat. Becky is a superstar engagement consultant based in South Australia who has recently been leading the consultation for the District Council of Yankalilla’s preparation to develop their Strategic Plan for 2020–2030. Becky, with the full support of the Councils CEO Nigel Morris and Mayor Glen Rowlands, has developed a suite of amazing ways for the community of people living and visiting Yankalilla to engage and truely have their insights heard in shaping the councils strategy. Nature’s Best, Let’s Plan the Rest is possibly the most extensive community consultation that this relatively small rural council (under 6000 people) has ever undertaken. ‘Imagine it’s 2030–10 years from now. What would you like our district to be known for? What do you think will be the biggest worries for you, your family or your community in the next 10 years? If you were Mayor, what would you change to prepare our community for the future?’ These are just some of the questions being asked online but then there’s the 14 different community events that Becky has arranged and these are not just standard ‘Town Halls’. No No No, these events are get your hands dirty, full participatory, use your senses experiences. Look, listens, speak, arrange, write and do. For example, where else do you get to combine and discuss Matchbox cars and fake grass to decide on the number of additional parking spaces the area should have. I know Becky believes that the more local you get when having the conversations the stronger and more ownership there is in the outcomes. Check out some of Becky’s other fabulous work, her Thought Bubble videoblogs and see how else she puts the community back in to community engagement via her website: https://www.beckyhirstconsulting.com.au or via Becky Hirst Consulting on Facebook.
  5. Finally the new kids on the block in which I do admit to having a small vested interested — and I also don’t mean oh oh ooho, oh oh oooooho — no I mean 150 Research and their new(ish) approach to getting the community to evaluate your community engagement so you know exactly how your doing via an Engagement Score. 150 Research, established by Tom Sweeney, believes that organisational excellence comes from having a deep understanding of your audience. In this case your community. Basing their work on knowledge of how people interact and share ideas they can provide their clients with a strategic, forward looking insight about how their work impacts, and is impacted by, their communities. Using Engagement Score, they can support you to benchmark your community engagement performance and track progress through your engagement journey. 150 Research are basically supporting you to put your community back in to your community engagement by having the community evaluate how you’re doing now. Big mining and utility companies do it, so why not Councils. Genius right? I mean how’s that for evaluation and closing the loop! See what they offer here: https://www.150research.com

So there you go, five organisations/individuals that are doing their bit to ensure community is not forgotten when it comes to community engagement.

The first two are relatively simple ideas you could replicate tomorrow and have minimal costs to set up, while the third needs a little more planning, time and probably a decent budget. The forth shows no matter how small your community is, what’s important is you give them the best engagement journey you can offer and when you can make them fun ways to participate so that when a decision is made they trust it, they are part of it and they can own it. It also helps when those making the final decision are in full support of your activities. Lastly, with number five we have highlighted that even when we think we are doing our best at engaging the community there is no better way to evaluate than inviting the community to do it and tell you exactly how you are doing whether its as part of a project or ongoing process. I mean as a Community Engagement Practitioner what’s the best feeling you have ever received when working with the community… has to be the community member who comes to you and thanks you for making them feel a part of their community again, right?

Let me know what you think, what other examples have you seen where the community is being put back into community engagement — please share them so others can see.

#commengageday #communityengagement

Originally posted on LinkedIn on 28 January 2020.

Published By Andrew Coulson

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Innovative Community Engagement. @engage2act Director and Board member, #engage2act advocate, #gatehashing instigator.