A diverse group of people in a room with colourful artwork on the walls. The people are engaged in a group discussion

Community engagement: what does it mean?

Community engagement is a core function and responsibility of any democratically accountable organisation. It’s a term that’s thrown around frequently but there isn’t any one agreed-upon definition; everyone agrees that it’s important to do it without always understanding what that entails.

Broadly speaking, engagement is an umbrella term that can encompass a range of different methods, but at its core it means involving the public in decisions and incorporating citizens’ opinion into the way government is run. Sometimes people use community engagement to mean informal participatory exercises that may be less ‘top-down’ than other forms of participation; sometimes people bundle ‘consultation’ underneath the umbrella – but at the end of the day, the what doesn’t actually matter a whole lot. It’s the how that’s important.

The spirit of engagement is conversing with citizens, not because it’s your statutory duty but because it’s the right thing to do in terms of democratic legitimacy.

That’s because, for it to actually work, engagement needs to have a tangible impact. Too often, we see exercises that look nice, and are pleasant for citizens to use, but that have absolutely no effect on decision-making at the back end. Citizen engagement, however you choose to go about it, needs to be run with the intention that the public’s voices and opinions will have an impact on the outcome.

Developing a community engagement strategy

Infographic titled "5 steps for effective community engagement" Text reads:
Identify goals and preferred outcomes in line with your engagement strategy
Decide on methodology e.g. online engagement, focus group
Work backwards: what data do you need, and from whom? How will you get it?
Test thoroughly
Ensure your activity is accessible and well-designed
Promote it widely to ensure you hear from who you need to
Moderate and facilitate
Carefully analyse your findings
Identify key themes and consensus/opposition points
Don't skip this step!
Inform participants on your decision - even if it's not possible to proceed with their preferred outcome
Feeding back enables accountability and lets respondents know their time and input is valuable
Incorporate the community's views into your project or policy
Ensure the service you offer is delivering true value to citizens
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Because it’s not as simple as publishing an online survey and forgetting about it, it’s important to put a community engagement strategy in place. This should work on two levels: what your strategy is overall, and what strategy you’ll use for each individual exercise.

For example, you might set an overall goal of hearing more from communities within a certain demographic or post code. You then need to ask yourself: what is the best way of reaching them?

This question will then inform the type of community engagement you need to run. Are they online or offline? What language do they speak? What public services do they rely on?

For a real, nuanced understanding of residents’ wants and needs, regular and effective community engagement is the key.

Another question you need to ask to inform both ‘prongs’ of your strategy is: can the organisation deliver? Say for example you run an in-person exercise proposing to pedestrianise a certain area, and you ask residents to submit their designs for street furniture. Do you actually have sign-off and funding available to build said furniture, or have you just asked residents to give up an afternoon for no reason?

Trust is an essential part of community engagement – if you’re not trusted to take views into account, you won’t get good response rates. You need to be able to demonstrate that you’re listening: even if the final outcome isn’t what the community wanted, it’s important to acknowledge their contributions.

Answering questions like these might seem basic, but this type of thinking – considering the end goal you have in mind and then working backwards – is a vital component of a successful community engagement strategy.

To find out about Citizen Space and why it’s the best tool for community engagement, book a demo and we’ll walk you through it.