This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

We Need to Stop Sucking at Community Engagement

Over the course of this effort to create new community paradigms the discussion has often been focused on community governance meaning full involvement of the community in its own governance.  This is a substantial change from what is now the norm.  

However, despite providing organizational and information resources regarding community governance there is still a large gap missing in understanding this deeply enough to be able to think of it as a paradigm change.  When speaking of community governance, the main focus has been on the governance and the nature of community has just been assumed.  We need to take a deeper look at community itself and how it engages to see how that affects how new community paradigms will be initiated. For me this meant stepping outside my former professional comfort zone and exploring the world from a different perspective so I have been participating as a novice outsider in various group discussions at the LinkedIn Group Community Engagement.  This has provided a wide field of multiple perspectives from a variety of experienced practitioners.  Interestingly, the most engaging seem to come from across the Atlantic in the British Isles appearing to ahead of us in this aspect. I don’t know whether they are simply more advanced in these matters or have greater challenges forcing them to do so.

As a former economic development professional, I saw many instances where community engagement was seen as being more ‘required but not necessary’. The purpose of public hearings was very often getting the ‘buy in’ for a particular project rather than a desire for actual community engagement. 

This ‘engaging’ of the community by City Hall often had as its goal something beneficial to City Hall or those closely connected to it, but those in control also, in many instances, sincerely saw it as beneficial to the whole community even if they thought that sometimes the community wasn’t smart enough to know it.  Invariably though, these City Hall buy ins were seen as being of more importance than enhancing the capacity for engagement by the community.  

This is not to blame anybody in particular at any City Hall.  While there may be some who egregiously misused their power to disengage the community, this is in large part a systems problem.  We, the people with the luck to have enough resources so that we can help those in our own or other communities, have just not been that great at community engagement in any aspect. The general failure of community engagement by City Hall could be seen as a matter of motivation, if real engagement only has to occur every four years then limiting it to just enough for appearances, whether or not consciously, makes sense in a perverse way.  

There are also numerous examples of inadequate community engagement by outside organizations which supposedly do have the proper motivation.  Non-profits and other positive change-agent organizations come from the outside to impose solutions that were supposedly seen as highly desirable by the communities they served but ended up having an impact that was a less than appreciable long term on those communities when those outside organizations left. This angle on missteps in community engagement is addressed in this TED video by Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! 

The focus through new community paradigms though is on self-reflective community engagement, arising from the community itself through an organic or grassroots approach. In examining community engagement arising in or emerging from the community itself, we need to start with an underlying concept of Civil Society which exists prior to government and nonprofit intervention.  The main source cited in the past has been the Centre for Civil Society, a social innovation and public policy institute for the empowerment of ordinary people and strengthening of civil society in Australia, particularly in the posts Civil society as a platform for new community paradigms and Community paradigms as a set of community relations.

Civil society can be seen as the source or connecting glue of good neighbors among ordinary people, coming from the heart of the community, often cited by those invested in community engagement by formally volunteering or professionally managing specific external programs.  Sometimes this type of organic engagement can work through City Hall and sometimes it can work through other avenues. Sometimes though these social connections break down or are strained and made to wither away.  Then explicit efforts at community engagement may be needed which at times can be addressed internally or organically by the community itself, but at other times require a helping hand. 

The challenge is that organic or grassroots community engagement can be difficult to make emergent within a community, particularly in a sustainable manner. The ways or potential processes may exist but the means or necessary resources required to bring them together and then subsequently work to achieve specific ends may require external organizational resources. 

The difficulty is not only a matter of internal creation but also a matter of overcoming any external forces that may be working against the process.  All too often roadblocks are put up by the same institutions that were practicing just enough faux community engagement to get ‘buy in’ but not enough to achieve true community empowerment. 

Before going further, a difference between community engagement and civic engagement needs to be established, at least as used here.  Community engagement refers to engagement by the community with itself or the institutions with which it interacts with or through, or other outside forces.  Civic engagement refers to the actual interaction of the community engaging with government institutions.  The goal is to enhance the level of community engagement to empower the community, working at the grassroots, neighborhood level of civil society, to have the locus of control when engaging on civic matters with local or other government institutions.  This means that people being engaged in their local community but not interacting with City Hall is community not civic engagement or participation. 

One new source for basic questions regarding community engagement is Graeme Stuart who writes the Sustainable Community Engagement blog.  His blog has been added to the “Recently Updated Community Building Blogs” under the right hand column.  It has been his questions raised in the LinkedIn Community Engagement Group that have been the source of my latest contemplations.  Graeme has a multiple perspectives approach, looking at both Vertical and horizontal community engagement, vertical referring to interactions between the community and separate, local government or outside organizations and horizontal referring to interactions between community members. 

Community engagement is sometimes primarily vertical, as with consultation by a government department or attendance at a public hearing and sometimes primarily horizontal, such as good neighbors organizing a street party.  While it is sometimes it is a mix of both such as with service clubs or a tenant management organization, it needs to be combined or synthesized better to make it more effective.  

Beyond being able to provide a forum for effective engagement and a platform for community governance, It would also likely require the provision for other avenues of interaction such as community dialogue and direct deliberative democracy, which has been discussed in the past or new ways of addressing common challenges such as systems thinking, which has been discussed in the last post and will be considered more in the future.

This convincingly asserts that we need not only look at community engagement vertically and horizontally, but externally and internally, holistically and at the individual level.  It would require another choice along with standard government institutions or advocacy groups.

A new type of community organization could be created that promotes the idea that "Community engagement has come to the fore as a policy and programme approach that seeks to connect citizens both with each other and with government" as Graeme has suggested in quoting Ryan, Head, Keast, & Brown (2006) in "Engaging Indigenous Communities"(pdf),  This could help to move away from the idea that community engagement only involves organizations whether external or internal.  It could assist in providing a community with an “approach that seeks to connect citizens both with each other and with government".  This approach means creating unity in people, communicating with people you live with, and listening actively to achieve what engagement should be all about.

As a vision of full community engagement, this involves, as one CE professional put it, "Ordinary people coming together to deliberate and take action collectively on public problems or issues that they themselves have defined as important and in ways they have decided are appropriate."  Great when it actually happens naturally, but that is often not the case.  Helping to ensure that it does is a goal of new community paradigms. 

Past Posts