How to make certain you will waste your time and money doing community engagement.

This goes against the grain somewhat, being a fan of Appreciative Inquiry. But sometimes it just feels good to name some things that we know don’t work – and to state the ‘bleeding obvious’.

The systems mantra is helpful to get us started, being that ‘our systems and approaches are perfectly designed for getting the results we are presently getting.’ If the results of your community engagement have been less than satisfactory it may be that some of the following points are part of a very unhelpful system.

So here are my dirty dozen!

1. Make sure you think everything through (aka, have an answer to every possible question) before you go to the community.

When you take this approach the organisation basically does so much work on the project, or proposal, or plan, that it doesn’t want the community to mess it up. The organisation is no longer inviting the community to work with it – it only wants to market its solution to the community in order to gain acceptance. This is a sure way to let the community know that is a waste of time to get involved.

2. Only ask questions that invite a reaction, and/or polarise your community.

Related to number one, when an organisation believes it already has a solution it merely invites the community to react to that solution. This turns the engagement into those who support, versus those who are against. There is an art to asking a great question – one that invites a diverse community of interest into a very real, complex dilemma. (Watch out for a blog soon about the art of asking a great question)

3. Focus all your energy on those who are hyper-engaged.

Firstly, thank you to Prof Lyn Carson for this term. There is nothing wrong with people being passionate – the ones who care deeply, the ones who always make sure they are heard. But it is an issue if they alone become the focus of all community engagement activity. Not only does the organisation become resentful – feeling bashed up sometimes – they become stuck. Breakthroughs come when the less obvious become involved – including children/young people, and randomly selected citizens who feel they are never listened to. Broadening the base is important for a sophisticated and inclusive process.

4. View your community as an empty vessel to be filled, or something broken that needs to be fixed.

This is the opposite of course to an Appreciative Inquiry or assets-based approach. If an organisation does not believe they can learn anything new, or that the community can add value, then the best they think they can do is educate the community – in the hope that they align with the internal point of view, or simply cooperate with their plan of action. It reeks of disrespect, fuels skepticism, and is virtually guaranteed to fail. It also wastes the wisdom and resources of the community.

5. Only use techniques that suit you.

There are so many ways to connect with your community of interest. If you just stick with what you know chances are you will only engage whom you have usually engaged. In my experience people get bored with the same approach – those who are organising/running the processes and those who you hope will respond. Experimenting with different approaches can be surprisingly useful. It’s also a good idea to ask what works for those you wish to engage. There may be really cost effective ways to engage people in ways that work for them. Just mix it up a bit!

6. Avoid conflict at any cost

It is a bit of a worry that many organisations regard a good community engagement as a clinical, nice, interruption-free, process. This leads to delaying the process out of fear of emotions being expressed. This usually makes things worse. Finding out what people care about and how strongly is very useful and provides an opportunity to listen and build trust. Avoiding conflict at any cost almost inevitably, and paradoxically, contributes to even greater frustration and conflict.

7. Make sure that people with different points of view are kept apart.

Similar to the above, it is not uncommon for organisations to keep individuals or groups who express different points of view apart. Speaking to groups separately may feel safer, but it means that they don’t have the opportunity to really listen to each other, learn about other perspectives, and appreciate that others interests exist. If a more cohesive, tolerant and inclusive community is important, than hopefully any reasonable community engagement process will take you in that direction. Otherwise, what has been achieved?

8. Stick to the plan – (aka, don’t let anyone mess with your Gantt Chart)

Gaining approval for a project that involves community engagement can be challenging. Some organisations insist on a business case being presented, with all risks being considered, and carefully designed community engagement plan being signed off. The unfortunate consequence of this is that process and project managers feel constrained, and unable to adapt the process as they proceed. Being flexible is critical. If people cannot influence the process than they certainly won’t easily accept the output of the process.

9. Avoid getting decision-makers involved.

From experience it is easier at times to engage the external community that key internal decision-makers. The result of this is that decision-makers then feel “done to” just as the community often feels “done to”. Find a way to involve your decision-makers throughout the process. Unless they feel confident about the process, or even actively sponsor the process, then chances are they will kick back when it comes to crunch time – when decisions are actually made.

10. Ignore skills, experience and insights from within your organisation.

Some organisations have a tendency to espouse the value of external involvement more than internal. In my experience organisations that are poor at involving their own people are usually also not so good at engaging externally. Remember, robust engagement processes are fundamentally about making the most of the collective wisdom of your ‘community of interest’.

11. Label people, who express inconvenient points of view, as the ‘vocal minority’, ‘squeaky wheels’, or ‘C.A.V.E.’ people (citizens against virtually everything) or with other similarly disparaging terms

Though tempting at times to use such labels, it doesn’t actually help organisations to understand their knowledge, passion and concerns, or to build relationships with them. It also means that the organisation will tend to focus on how to neutralise the impact on such groups (which is quite negative) as opposed to enabling other less vocal groups to actively participate (much more positive)

12. Consider the risks and not the benefits

It is customary for all project managers to do a risk analysis and this also relates to stakeholder and community engagement. In my experience it is unwise to view your community as a risk to be managed than as a resource to be utilised. In whereas the risks for engaging are often well documented, the benefits are not often thought about. Moreover there is usually little attention paid to the risks involved for not engaging authentically. The practice of risk analysis and risk management has not been all that helpful when it comes to working with our communities of interest.


So that is what I believe are the 12 best ways of wasting time and money. I’d love to know what points you would add to this list. Importantly, if we know how to make community engagement a waste of time, chances are, by waking up, we can give it a much, much better chance of being useful. Let’s do it differently. Surely we can.

To find out what makes community engagement effective, meaningful and worth the effort check out this terrific twitter report produced by Andrew Coulson and hundreds of tweeters!




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  1. Danielle Annells on February 3, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    Thanks Max for a terrific resource and reminder to have at hand – almost an inverse checklist!

  2. Geoff Wilson on February 6, 2015 at 5:29 am

    Hi Max:
    Thanks for this. I wholly agree with your comment: “The systems mantra is helpful to get us started, being that ‘our systems and approaches are perfectly designed for getting the results we are presently getting.'”

    I also think what’s valuable about your dirty dozen is that these are lessons that you … that we… have probably learned the hard way (and maybe we continue to learn the hard way?).

    A colleague and I do a presentation that we call “Hard Lessons” in which we talk about what we’ve learned about patient and public engagement through our failures and screw-ups. It’s always hugely popular when we present this because it’s honest, and people are drawn to that honesty. I think the advice you’re offering here is also honest, and it demonstrates an authenticity of leadership that is striving to achieve truly meaningful engagement by taking our experiences of the work, including our missteps, and learning from them so we can be just that little bit better next time.

    I’ll be curious to see the responses!

    Geoff Wilson

  3. Dee on February 24, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    Hi Max,
    I love this post!
    The ‘hyper-engaged’ point reminded me of a principle in Circle Work which says that even the quietest person holds a space in the circle; without them, there would be gaps and another which says that silence is part of the conversation!
    I also love the term “CAVE people” – really gave me a good chuckle!

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