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Community Engagement - What Does It Even Mean?

11/08/2016 13:36 | Updated 11 August 2016

After many years in the public sector it is clear that one of the most sought after goals in these jobs is successful 'community engagement'. People who work for local Councils and to an extent the Police and NHS all want to engage with their customers - the local residents.

The problem is that I have yet to meet anyone who can say what this means or describe what 'community engagement looks like - it is just something we really want.

I think what most colleagues mean by the phrase is getting approval for what they are trying to do and, ideally, getting residents to actually help them do it. More than that - I think we just want to be approved of and loved.

In most cases cases it simply results a shiny consultation document being compiled and nothing actually done about what the public said.

I want to suggest some 'rules' - which I think would achieve more than just another consultation document sitting on a shelf. So here are my 'rules'.

Keep in mind that the word 'community' is for all practical purposes a useless word because there is no such thing as one community.

Before discussing how to engage with people - define what you mean by it in practical terms and what you want to achieve.

Keep in mind that what you think is a good idea in the meeting room is rarely seen as such by residents.

Well meaning public servants should try to imagine how they would feel and think if someone from the their own local authority came knocking on their door asking them to do what they intend asking their residents to do.

Keep in mind that any two groups of people will think in tribal terms - there will be you, the council or police, and them, the residents and it takes some effort not to think in those terms.

Be aware that this tribal thinking is likely to lead you to think you know best and lead you to find fault with residents and this will get in the way.

Remember that holding a consultation is to local authorities what chocolate is to a chocolate addict - this means you will probably want to do it for the sake of doing it.

If you intend to hold a consultation - then spend as much time planning on how to implement what comes out of the consultation as you spend devising your splendid consultation process.

It is far better to find out what your residents actually want to do for themselves and to help them to do it - assuming it is legal and helps the wider community in some way.

Don't assume community leaders actually lead anyone - or speak for anyone else - unless you have evidence for that.

Don't just assume that what someone tells you is what they actually think - they could be simply saying what they think you want to hear.

People may seem angry at first - don't let that stop you talking to them - it can often be overcome if you want to get passed it.

Don't think simply telling people that you are going to do something is consulting them or engaging them in any meaningful way.

Most people don't become very engaged or active in community matters unless it involves something quite bad (flooding etc) or very enjoyable (Festival etc) - this is normal.

People who devise policy and strategy documents will produce just that - don't assume anything else - very often that's all they do and it doesn't mean anything will come of it in the real world.

Don't assume existing volunteers will have more time spare to do want you think they should do - in addition to what they are already doing.

If you feel obliged to do some sort of engagement but don't really want to listen to residents - then try really hard to get out of doing it because it will only make it more difficult the next time because people will remember that you did nothing about what they asked last time.

In summary - only try to engage with residents if you actually intend to listen to, and value, what they say and can actually help them to achieve what they want to achieve. Obviously I get it right all the time.

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