A diverse group of people in a room with colourful artwork on the walls. They are consulting in a community engagement strategy meeting.

What is community engagement?

Community engagement is a core function and responsibility of any democratically accountable organisation. It requires incorporating community feedback in government decision making, rather than relying on the traditional top-down approach.

This can encompass a wide range of different methods, including informal participatory exercises, questionnaires, surveys and feedback. The intent of community engagement strategies is to embrace public opinion and allow local knowledge to take a front seat in the public decision-making process.

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.

For it to actually work, community 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.

Whatever community engagement strategy is chosen, 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
Click for expanded view

t’s not as simple as publishing an online survey and forgetting about it, it’s important to put a meaningful community engagement strategy in place to encourage public engagement.

This should work on two levels:

  • What your community engagement strategy is overall
  • Which community engagement activities 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 decide which facilitation tools would be most effective.

This question will then inform the type of community engagement strategies you need to run. Are they online or offline? What language do constituents speak? What public services do they rely on? This is the first step in deciding engagement activities.

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

Understanding community engagement

Before you consider your community engagement overview, you need to consider how your organisation will deliver on its results.

For example, you run an in-person exercise proposing to pedestrianize a certain area, and you ask residents to submit their designs for street furniture using geospatial mapping.

Has your local government got the sign-off and funding available to complete this if the community responds positively? You need to be seen facilitating community engagement outcomes, not just running the project for the sake of it.

Engagement efforts are meaningless without trust. An effective community engagement strategy considers this at its forefront and delivers on promises made. Demonstrate you’re listening, even if the final outcome isn’t what the community wanted. It’s crucial to acknowledge public engagement.

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.

Citizen Space is a citizen engagement platform trusted by government around the world. Government organisations and public bodies use Citizen Space to connect with more citizens, increase engagement and improve processes.

To learn more about what Citizen Space can do for your organisation, book a free demo and we’ll walk you through it.