Five key questions to ask when selecting your community engagement method

by | Jul 31, 2019

When starting any project which involves or affects the community, there are a range of community engagement methods which may immediately come to mind.

Some methods you may have heard of or participated in.  Others might be your trusted favourites to deliver.  These may include variations on surveys and workshops, listening posts, appreciative inquiry processes through to world cafes.  All these and more have a place in a community engagement toolkit.  The trick is knowing when to use them.

Not being led by the method can also sometimes be a challenge.  Some of the methods can be quite exciting and involved.  Others are nice and familiar. It can be tempting to decide on a method leading into a project, then build your process around it.  This approach, however, can result in the ‘cart leading the horse’ scenario.  This may mean you choose the engagement method too early in a project which then negatively impacts on the final project outcome.

In order to avoid this scenario, we recommend you ask five key questions before settling on an engagement method.

1. What is the context of the project?

Understanding the wider context of a project and a community including the history or what is driving the need for engagement is important for planning an engagement strategy.

What is driving the engagement around the project will impact on what engagement methods are an option as well as how any engagement activities are received.  Drivers for engagement could be a legislative requirement, a history of under or over engagement or even community demand.

Consideration of what has happened before, both in the project or your organisational context, can assist in identifying factors which may impact, aid or hinder engagement efforts and direct your approach.  For instance, a long history of consultation around the future design and development of a site combined with lack of action or a lack of consultation and lots of action will result in very different receptions in a community to engagement around a project.

2. What is the scope of the project?

The focus and scope of a project will set the direction for the associated community engagement elements.

For instance, whether the engagement is focused on design, planning, feedback, decision making or is a trust building exercise should then inform which methods are selected to achieve that aim.  For example, a combination of a community reference group and public displays with surveys would be a useful approach to gain feedback.

Alternatively, a combination of creative arts competitions and community mapping would be valuable exercises for a design focused project.

3. Who is the community?

Knowing the community involved and affected by a project can help to clarify who needs to participate and what their role will be in any engagement exercise.  This then informs not only the method selected but also how to deliver the process.

Who are you engaging with could be anyone from users of a site, retirees, working families, sporting groups, general ratepayers, service recipients through to school children.  The individuals or groups involved will then guide your method selection and delivery.

For instance, if you are wanting to engage with volunteer groups comprised of retirees then a workshop at 2pm on a Tuesday could be appropriate.  However, if you are wanting to engage with working families it is probably not the best approach.

Being clear on who you need to engage in your community will allow you to establish whether they are likely to participate in the method you have in mind and / or what sort of method they would participate in.

4. What is really on the table?

Sometimes the scope for community input can be quite narrow or conversely the community could be leading the process.  Asking what the communities role is in a project in order to clarify the scope of their involvement is a key part of planning your engagement strategy.

Establishing the boundaries can also highlight what is and isn’t on the table and open for discussion within the context of a project.  This helps ensure that the engagement activities enable the required input and do not set up false expectations.

For instance, offering a highly involved, design focused process such as a design charette when the decision making is restricted to the colour of the building may not deliver good results for the project or ongoing community relations.  Conversely, only holding a listening post when there are a wide range of complicated issues relating to the project is also problematic.

Establishing the scope for community involvement is useful to ensure the most appropriate methods are used.  It also builds an ongoing relationship of trust with your community.

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) spectrum of public participation can be helpful to identify where your project and engagement might sit and plan accordingly.

5. Why are you talking to the community?

Finally, it is always important to know why you are talking to the community.  If you are not clear about the reason and are not able to articulate this to your audience, then the outcome is likely to be compromised.

Having clarity about your purpose also means you can align the engagement method with achieving this purpose.

Wrapping up – best practice community engagement

In summary, by turning your mind to these five key questions, you will ensure that the engagement method is tailored to the project requirements as well as the needs of the community.  This may or may not end up being the same method that first came to mind.

Similarly, one method will rarely serve all the engagement needs of a project. Instead multiple methods may work together to provide an integrated experience and result.

Whichever method you use, delivery is key. Everyone has been to a good workshop and a bad workshop.  Or seen engaging and not so engaging attempts at surveys.  The methodology itself can only go so far.  Thinking through the process, having a clear scope of influence, selecting methods based on the capability of the organisation and facilitators, as well as having tailored content will all help build a program of consistent engagement and better decision making.

If you are looking for more information about community engagement methods, there are a number of resources available discussing the merits of different methods.  An example is this resource produced by Community Places in the UK which covers some of the strengths and weaknesses of different methods.

You can also contact our community engagement specialist, Cinnamon, who can guide you through the method selection process:

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