What is this issue about?
Community engagement is the process of inviting community members into the decision-making strategy to assess, plan, implement, and evaluate solutions to issues that affect their daily lives and environments. Centred around trust, communication and collaboration, community participation focuses on the needs, expectations and desires of community members.i Effective engagement processes can help build trust within communities, ensure efficient implementation of decisions, and result in better allocation of services.ii Engagement can take place at the research, planning or implementation stages of a project or programiii or as part of any process that is aimed at resolving community issues or developing strategies to address community problems. Engagement also has important by-products, including the development of a shared understanding about the overall community picture and enhanced community relationships.
More than a box to check
When community engagement is recognized as a key part of the decision-making process, the decisions, plans, and developments are more likely to reflect the views of the wider community. A healthy community engagement process understands and respects the diversity of the community, incorporating engagement methods that allow for the widest possible reach and inclusion of all impacted community members, especially those who are typically harder-to-reach and under-served in the community. Considering the systemic barriers that may affect their ability to participate in public engagement processes and ensuring all engagement opportunities are safe (bearing no social, emotional, or financial repercussions) and culturally-appropriate (accommodating to cultural differences) are important components of equitable community engagement. For more information on developing an equitable engagment process, see our video, How can local governments build equity into community engagement processes?
Degrees of Engagement
There are a number of degrees of engagement. The International Association for Public Participation has developed a popular model that describes a spectrum of public participation using five distinct phases of higher-level community engagement—meaning that individuals are actively involved in the development of solutions to problems and issues in their community.iv
The five degrees of the IAP2 Spectrum are:
- Inform – To provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem and proposed opportunities and/or solutions.
- Consult – To obtain public feedback on analysis, options and/or decisions.
- Involve – To work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.
- Collaborate – To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of solutions, and the identification of the preferred solution.
- Empower – To place final decision-making in the hands of the public.
The Canadian Institute of Planners states: “The ways in which information is gained, shared, and diffused among community members and stakeholders can vary widely; however, the end goal remains the same—to involve people in the processes and decisions that affect their lives.”v
Why is community engagement important for health and well-being?
Community engagement has been shown to produce better policy outcomes and is associated with better health and well-being in its own right.vi There is evidence to suggest that empowerment and engagement of community members is, in and of itself, health promoting,vii and many studies show that health improves with the ability to control one’s circumstances and environment.viii Greater control over individual circumstances can improve personal outcomes and lead to a greater sense of well-being and a better quality of life.
Community engagement can result in greater efficiency because the involvement of those who are affected by decisions in the decision-making process can improve the quality of decisions, help create support for decisions, and support effective implementation of decisions.
Image courtesy Paul Krueger.
Why does community engagement matter for local governments?
Local government is the level of government closest to community members. A focus on improving community engagement can help improve decision making and the overall function of government. It can help improve buy-in by community members in long-term decisions and build understanding about the trade-offs and dilemmas involved in community decision making.
In addition, studies indicate that community members develop a greater sense of participation in civic life as a result of positive experiences with engagement. For example, municipal tax income increases with effective community engagement because morale and compliance are enhanced.ix, x, xi, xii
Interested in learning more about using equitable, meaningful engagement processes to make better decision for your community?
See our Healthy Community Engagement Action Guide for ideas and examples from communities across B.C.