Black and white image of a large crowd of people

This post was originally going to be quite different.

Initially, it was born out of the realisation that there’s a frustrating lack of consistency when it comes to talking about community engagement. Based on what you see on social media I’d put money on the fact that a not-so-small proportion of people who talk about it think it simply means interacting with the public (there’s a reason it’s not called ‘community interaction’).

In a similar vein, there also seems to be an aversion to the term ‘consultation’. Or, at the very least, a perception that it’s somehow less valid as a process than community engagement – but without any real understanding of what the difference is; just a vague notion that consultation is too top-down and responses have less impact than they do with engagement. (Sean Marks from Essex County Council has written an excellent blog about this.) In other words, engagement is the hip new kid on the public participation block and consultation is its cringe old Croc-wearing dad.*

Except, that’s not really true. Engagement isn’t new. And consultation isn’t going anywhere, nor is it outdated as a process.

Nevertheless, my and Delib’s attempts to define the difference started as a simple writing exercise and devolved into a series of existential internal conversations about ~the meaning of it all~.

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

Engagement is used as a sort of umbrella term for different types of public participation. Sometimes consultation is bundled underneath; sometimes people use it to mean informal participatory exercises. 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 means conversing with citizens, not because it’s your statutory duty, but because it’s the right thing to do in terms of democratic legitimacy.

It’s going far beyond the legal minimum, intentionally and consistently. It’s closing the feedback loop. It’s ensuring that people are, and feel that they are, listened to. It’s incorporating public opinion into the way government is run. It certainly is not engagement for the sake of it; that is, shallow exercises that look nice on your website but have no substance, purpose, or even any real means of using the generated response data.

Seriously, though, what does community engagement actually mean?

All that being said, I’m conscious that the lofty theoretical thought behind a thing is often, if not almost always, very different from its real-world applications. There is a practical way to define what engagement means – but not in a ‘Delib said it so it must be true’ sort of way. I’d instead refer you to the experts: the ones who are actually, you know, doing engagement.

We’ve worked with hundreds of customers around the world. Their activity (which you can see in the Citizen Space Aggregator) is diverse, varied and constantly changing, as well as constantly surprising us. Delib’s customers are engaging their communities, and the exercises they’re running have helped us to understand the meaning of engagement through their eyes.

It varies slightly, especially from country to country, and certainly evolves over time as trends come and go. But here’s what community engagement means, according to engagement practitioners and professionals, in 2021:

  • It’s less structured than formal consultation
  • Involves asking the public for their thoughts on an issue or theme, rather than on a prepared document or draft policy
  • Uses a range of methods other than just surveys (for example, crowdsourcing or prioritisation), both online and offline

Example: the Scottish Government’s National Conversation about COVID-19 restrictions

Remote Scottish castle ruin on the edge of a lake with mountains in the background

This isn’t our One Final Decision about this topic and what it means. It’s an evolving discussion, as evidenced by some interesting thoughts that were shared last week on Twitter. We’d love to hear what you think.

*I’ve been informed that Crocs are apparently now “cool” according to TikTok. Those terrible lessons we learned in the noughties were all for nothing then. Which is Fine

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