What's stopping good community engagement?

Kim Johnstone
October 24, 2018

Effective citizen engagement

Since starting work with Astrolabe Group Pty Limited, I have been working with the Committee for Sydney on a report focused on one of the core building blocks of successful liveable cities – effective citizen engagement.  As our cities change in response to demographic shifts and technological advances, those of us involved in place-making need to engage early to make sure we really understand people’s needs. This is the only way to bring everyone along for the ride.  

Early engagement requires continuous community involvement in the planning process as opposed to one-off engagement exercises. Key to this is making sure we plan engagement properly – plan it before we make decisions, with the explicit intention of meaningful collaboration.  

But what stops early and continuous community engagement taking place?  I have been struck by two pieces of research that show government structures may be a key barrier.  

Mazhar et al. published an article last year about Nottingham City Council in the UK, who are undertaking energy policy reform as part of a five-year EU funded study on sustainable urban regeneration. A review of Nottingham City Council’s community engagement found a high commitment to community engagement among staff. But the researchers found that when Council staff talked about engaging citizens at the start of the process, they were actually talking about a point after decisions had been made. This means engagement often ended up being citizens presented with a binary choice – accept it or don’t, do you like this a lot or just a little?   


Identifying the needs of a community

Continuous community engagement starts by identifying what the community cares about. Understand why change is feared. Ask questions and listen to the answers before giving solutions. It’s active listening at a community level.

But this can be challenging in a traditional policy development setting. A recent article by Ron Levy reporting results from a survey of nearly 2,000 state and federal public servants showed that public servants most consulted with other public servants. Moreover, they assumed that members of the general public lack the capacity to deliberate well on broad policy directions.  

This is frankly a misplaced view.  It means key issues might be missed or that unintended consequences create a negative impact.  It also means that the people affected by planning choices are not part of developing solutions that will meet their needs. It leads to engagement that presents people with limited choices.

Good community engagement then needs leadership from those agencies controlling the engagement process to engage early and often.  One way is exploring how digital engagement tools may enhance when you engage, how you engage, and being able to focus on different sectors within the community. This can lead to better outcomes for cities, as well as greater shared ownership by all the stakeholders, a powerful tool in creating lasting innovation and change.

These two studies also show that governments who control community engagement also need to be willing to relinquish decision-making power to those most affected by the planning decisions being made.  

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