The Challenge of Community Engagement

It is just so ironic.

I’m sitting in a conference session called “Conversations, Consultations, and Community Engagement”. The session description talked about the importance of ensuring citizen support, input and participation.  Always keen to learn especially on a subject near and dear to my heart, I was eagerly anticipating the session. Unfortunately, I am so bored that instead of listening to the speakers, I’m writing this column.

The room set-up should have been my first clue. A panel of four speakers sat at the head table, the first already standing at the podium firing up a powerpoint presentation.

Participants sat, classroom-style, in rows of chairs lined up behind narrow tables.

While the presenters certainly had good intentions, as well as significant experience, they absolutely failed to engage their audience…the glazed eyes and yawns kicked in within ten minutes.  I kept thinking, if they failed to engage the participants in the room, how on earth could they engage an entire community?

So what exactly is community engagement?

Well for certain it’s about engaging citizens. But it’s more than that. It’s the process that results in people working collaboratively for the betterment of their community. It also results in people having the skills and power to identify their issues, make their own decisions, and create their own solutions.

Ultimately community engagement is about working and learning together to create bold and confident visions for the future.

If the community is involved, higher quality solutions will be created, conflicts reduced, and a greater sense of community created. Communities that are truly engaged take greater responsibility for what is happening in their community and create the momentum for addressing the identified issues, not only with vision, but with movement, change and solutions.

The problem is that community engagement really isn’t always that clear cut as it exists on a continuum that isn’t always understood. At one end of the continuum is engagement that simply informs by communicating information to the public. While it has a time and a place, too often it ends up like this conference session….yawn.

At the other end of the continuum and, what in most cases would be ideal, is the kind of engagement that has local residents and organizations initiating, learning, and leading, sometimes with external support and coaching, on issues identified as important.  The community shares decision-making power and the positive synergy that results.

In between these two extremes are forms of engagement that seek, but don’t always heed, community opinions. In some cases though, attempts are made to engage the community in decision making and action.

Organizing this conference session isn’t all that different from organizing sessions to engage the community.

What could have been done differently to engage participants?

A more inviting room set up would have helped. Perhaps a circle of chairs or at least a u-shape would have better conveyed that the presenters wanted interaction with the participants. To make participants more comfortable, introductions would also have been a good thing.  A facilitator to clearly articulate the session outcomes and to keep the speakers on track would also be positive.  In this session, as is almost always the case, two of the presenters exceeded their time limit.

It would also have been a better session if the presenters understood they weren’t the only experts in the room. When we did get to the last ten minutes and participants were finally allowed to provide feedback, it turns out there was a lot of wisdom and experience in the room. For me it was the most valuable part of the session.

The presenters themselves seemed surprised by some of the great ideas. The sad part is that it they shouldn’t have been. If they understood community engagement, it would have been exactly what they expected.


Posted on 11-18-07

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