Community engagement – definitions applicable to systems change

I’ve been pondering how we understand this term ‘community engagement’ and realising how important it is that we develop an agreed understanding of it before designing a community engagement process. There is no single universally applied understanding of the terms, community engagement, public participation, or citizen involvement. The terms are used interchangeably. Perhaps, the most widely used definition comes from The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) definition is widely used.

“Engagement, or public participation, is a process for making better decisions that incorporates the interests and concerns of all affected stakeholders and meet the needs of the decision-making body.”

The IAP2 Spectrum describes five different levels of engagement, Involve, Consult, Involve, Collaborate and Empower. Each of these levels refers to the extent to which participation influences decision-making. Even the term ‘empower’ in the IAP2 context, is about delegated decision making; it does not align with the community development concept of empowerment.

Although a useful framework for decision-making, the IAP2 definition and the Spectrum, do not relate well to systems change. It is more than just influencing a decision; and one that is set largely by a single sponsoring organisation.

Here are some other definitions:

‘Simply put, community engagement seeks to engage the community to achieve sustainable outcomes, equitable decision-making processes, and deepen relationships and trust between government organisations and communities.’ Crispin Butteriss, Bang the Table (who also writes about this in his article ‘What is community engagement, exactly?’.

‘Community engagement seeks to better engage the community to achieve long-term and sustainable outcomes, processes, relationships, discourse, decision-making, or implementation.’

Center for Economic and Community Development

And how about this definition for employee engagement.

‘Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company.’ Kevin Kruse, Forbes

We know that community engagement is not only about decision making. Capire developed the engagement triangle to show that engagement can also be about capacity building, and strengthening relationships. This is helpful, and yet when working on a suicide prevention strategy it was apparent to me that we did not only want to engage the community to merely inform decisions, build skills or strengthen relationships. The engagement itself was the solution. We were seeking to help communities to discuss the taboo subject of suicide; and thereby enable everyone to get the help they need, or offer the support required, in a new way. It was about changing a system, and engaging people in conversations about this topic was the vehicle. So, we reframed ‘Engaging the community to help prevent suicide’ to ‘a Citizen-led strategy for suicide prevention’. The engagement was the means and the end. Engaging communities to transform how we talk about, think about, and behave regarding suicide ideation, means something quite different to engaging a community, for instance, about a new parking policy. The kind of engage is different. Engaging that primarily informs a decision or policy may not require ongoing engagement. Once the decision is made and is implemented we just get on with our lives. For systems change the engagement is ongoing; it is iterative, and it informs behaviours, attitudes, builds social capital, and become synonymous with the solution itself.

The Tamarack Institute definition of community engagement is one that sits better for this kind of engagement:

… people working collaboratively, through inspired action and learning, to create and realise bold visions for their common future. (Tamarack, 2003)

This definition works better for ‘systems change’, and for ‘movement building’. There is an opportunity to flesh out this nuance; so that it is clear when we refer to engagement or participation it is this kind of meaning and aspiration.

What is important is that we don’t say one definition is superior to any other. It is simply getting agreement about what it means for a particular situation. No definition works for every kind of engagement. Perhaps the big lesson here is that we don’t just assume we share the same meaning or intent when we talk about engagement. One way to help do that is to ask the question, what might be the most positive legacy this process would leave us with? For the engagement that informs a decision it might be, ‘participants know their input has been valued, understood, and have clarity as to how their input has contributed to decisions made’. For a suicide prevention strategy, the legacy might be ‘a community is more capable and confident in talking about suicide; and that people are better connected, less isolated, and better able to support each other and ask for help’.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever found yourself talking at cross purposes with other people when discussing community engagement?


  1. Paul K on October 24, 2019 at 11:14 am


  2. […] as Max Hardy says here, even the term ‘empower’ in the IAP2 context is about delegated decision making; it does not […]

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