When it comes to community engagement, influence matters. There must be some evidence that something has changed as a result of the process. There would appear to be no value for money, or effort, if nothing appears to change; if nothing is influenced. I get that; support that; advocate for that. Always.
Yet, influencing decisions is not the only aspect of community engagement that is important. Is it possible for a process to be quite influential regarding certain decisions with the process being poorly designed? Absolutely. The process could be dominated by well organised, powerful groups with narrow interests, at the expense of groups who are less organised, or everyday citizens. They could have more influence than the majority of others who have been excluded, or not supported to participate in the process.
It is also conceivable that decisions could be influenced by the process, whilst leaving the community lest cohesive, more polarised, and more sceptical about the efficacy of the process. Would we regard such a process as being robust?
I’m not saying that influence is overrated. It’s important, but in isolation is does not necessarily equate to good process. So here are some indicators of success for community engagement I believe should be considered as a package (and their relative importance will vary depending on the scope of the project or issue being addressed).
- Do we have diverse participation? Does everyone believe they have had a ‘fair go’?
- Do people believe their concerns and aspirations have been well understood?
- Does everybody learn something new as a result of the process? (Are we smarter than we were at the beginning?)
- Is there more appreciation of the complexity of the issues being explored, and an understanding of different points of view and different interests?
- Is our ‘community of interest’ more cohesive, resilient and respectful as a result of the process?
- Is there a shared sense we have been exploring the right questions in order to lead to wise, or even a creative, solution?
- Do we have advice, recommendations or decisions that are implementable?
- Will the process encourage decisionmakers to be more open to engaging on other complex issues with their communities as a result of this process?
- Have we built some participatory capital? Is there greater capacity in the community of interest to participate on other matters as a result of being involved in this process?
For me this is about the legacy of community engagement. It’s about impacts that go beyond any decision made from the process. Ultimately, is it more likely to contribute to the world we would prefer to be part of.
I will continue to advocate for a commitment from decisionmakers to be genuinely open to the advice, recommendations and wisdom from engagement processes. However, I will have some other factors in mind. What will be on your radar?
This blog has been invited by Engage2Act around the theme of ‘Influence’ as part of our recognition of Global Community Engagement Day, 28th January.
Principal, Max Hardy Consulting