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Wednesday 10 January 2018

Community engagement: explore and agree why you are doing it

Community engagement is a crucial activity for many collaborative initiatives. Most people realise this and will willingly contribute the time, effort and resources to ensure it is done 'properly'. 

However, this is where the misunderstandings and problems can begin. What does 'doing community engagement properly' mean?

There is no one agreed definition of community engagement and there can be different reasons for doing it. Also, people who join a collaborative initiative will hold their own beliefs about community engagement and what it is for based upon their backgrounds and experiences and the previous contexts within which they have done it.

So, when a collaboration forms and begins thinking about community engagement, it makes sense to make time to discuss and explore each partner's experiences of community engagement and the assumptions and beliefs they hold about it: essentially why and how they expect it to be done.

However, as stated in a recent paper from BMC Public Health, this is not done often enough. The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps they are connected with time pressures and/or the assumption that everyone sees community engagement in the same way.

But it is clear there are consequences. Misunderstandings and conflicts will soon manifest between partners who hold different beliefs about community engagement and what it should be expected to achieve. These difficulties usually arise, as the above paper also makes clear, from the unacknowledged and therefore unmanaged collision of the two most widely used approaches to community engagement: the pragmatic and the idealistic (what the BMC Public Health paper more accurately and specifically labels as the utilitarian approach and the social justice approach).

Those who perceive community engagement as a pragmatic utilitarian tool will use it purely and simply to achieve a collaborative initiative's objectives (e.g., improvements in a community's standard of education and training, its overall standard of health, its overall quality of life, etc.) Those who perceive community engagement as an ideological vehicle for social justice will offer it as a transformative experience that will empower a community and encourage its people to co-create or, in some cases, take control of a collaborative initiative and its priorities and approaches (e.g., they will help shape or even set the priorities for education and training, heavily influence or even identify the areas of community health that need to be improved, or do same re. the quality of life experienced by a community, etc.).    

Obviously, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive and they need not collide through misunderstandings and conflict. If they are discussed and explored and people's assumptions and preferences for one or the other are surfaced they can, through patient discussion and agreement, become opposite ends of a managed continuum of community engagement: one that offers an effective mix of pragmatic 'utilitarian' engagement to achieve objectives and 'socially just' engagement to encourage empowerment which can be gradated according to need and context.

This careful managing of the pragmatic and the ideological enables a collaborative initiative to respond quickly and effectively to changing circumstances and the challenges and opportunities that arise as its relationship with its communities waxes and wanes but, hopefully, ultimately evolves.

It will also help the initiative respond quickly to 'tipping points': those points during the development of a collaborative initiative's relationship with its communities when a small amount of additional engagement, acknowledgement or resource (or a small adjustment of approach) can realise disproportionately large rewards.

For example, a favourable tipping point will occur when a long sought key influencer from within a community decides to join an initiative or show significant public support for it. At this time, it will be possible for the initiative to make significant progress if it can slightly adapt its style of engagement, becoming a little more overtly 'utilitarian' if a quick leap towards achieving objectives is needed or a little more 'socially just' if the key influencer can become an instant role-model for community empowerment. Obviously, the initiative might gain maximum advantage (dependent upon need, appropriateness and context) if it can cleverly combine both things! 

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