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Community engagement - but where's the marriage?

Written by Peter McKinlay on November 29th, 2011.      0 comments

Much of our recent work has had quite a strong focus on community engagement - how do local authorities work with their communities and what should they be seeking to achieve? It's clear there's a great deal of activity, with many councils seeing community engagement as an important part of the way they work, but equally still casting around for what community engagement actually means, and what practices will best achieve the outcomes they want.

There is also a huge range of different approaches on offer, and a real growth industry in workshops on how to do community engagement. What we get from feedback is that there is much less certainty about just where all that is going, and how community engagement translates from a great deal of effort by councils and their staff into real and enduring outcomes in terms of the practice of council/community relationships.

We've been thinking about why this might be the case and have a couple of thoughts we want to put out for debate. First and foremost it seems to us that the focus in the developing practice of community engagement has been very much on how councils build their capability in managing individual issues where there is going to be a community interest in what the council does. The result it seems to us is an imbalance: councils, especially their specialist staff working in community engagement, are developing some very real capability. The question to ask is whether this has been balanced by an increased capability both amongst elected members, and more importantly perhaps within their communities.

We want to suggest that the next step in developing the practice of community engagement is to shift from a focus on capability within the council to capability within the council's communities. In a sense, councils should see themselves as building social capital within their communities.

Doing this almost certainly requires a significant shift in how councils think about community engagement. It's a shift from a capability to handle matters issue by issue, to building a resource base across the community. It's almost certainly more than just a matter of how councils engage: building capability in the community amounts to building some form of institutional capacity whether formal or informal. It's likely to be moved from engagement per se to community governance, enabling a network of institutional capability within the community capable of sharing with the council in determining what outcomes should be, both issue by issue and more generally.
It's a long way from the origins of interest in community engagement, but it's hard to see how the practice of community engagement can move on from its present emphasis on building council capability to building community capability as well, without crossing the boundary into community governance.



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