What is community engagement, exactly?


There is no simple or single answer to the question, “what is community engagement?” It defies definition because everyone, it seems, has a different answer! So, how do we define community engagement?

In this post, I explore the issue from the perspective of several different disciplines in an attempt to come up with a unified, inclusive, definition that allows all of the professions to “own” community engagement collectively.

We have outlined 11 key benefits of community engagement

It’s a long post, so here’s a table of contents to make navigation a little easier.

What is community engagement to:

Defining community engagement

What is community engagement internationally to the:

Different industries, professions, organisations, business units within a single organisation, and even people within those business units will have different definitions of community engagement. It seems that “community engagement” is a fraught term because it has so very many parents. On the one hand, it is aligned with the commercial world of “brand engagement”, and at the other end of the spectrum, it is firmly rooted in “participatory development practices”.

It’s parentage could not be more diverse.

The issue is also complicated by its many synonyms.

How does “community engagement” differ from “citizen engagement”, “civic engagement”, “citizen participation”, “public participation” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera? What ever happened to “community consultation”? And what about “community relations”, “community feedback” and “community development”? Why are there so many different terms that sound so very similar to the uninitiated? AND why do people get so upset if you use the wrong one?

A (very short) story about the tension in “community engagement”

One lazy afternoon several years ago, my wife, Amy, and I were out for the afternoon walking our dog, Ellie (a black cocker-spaniel-corgi cross – she’s short, fat and fast, with a fluffy tail!), and pushing our newborn, Charlie, along a trail beside a local creek – or, stream, if you’re reading this anywhere other than Australia – and chatting about community engagement. That might seem odd. But we both work in community engagement, and we met through community engagement, so it’s not all that unusual.

We are, it has to be said, community engagement nerds! As Ellie did what dogs do and Charlie slept, we talked about Amy’s conversations about community engagement with a host of different local government councils here in Melbourne. She does quite a lot of community engagement training, so she meets lots of people who are thinking about what community engagement means for their job.

Amy noticed that there was, more often than not, quite a lot of tension between different members of staff from different parts of the organisations she was working with. It took a bit of digging into, but it gradually became clear that different teams of people felt they should “own” community engagement for their organization, and moreover, that their particular objectives should define what community engagement meant for the organization. Here are 4 examples of that tension.

What is community engagement for land-use planners?

The land-use planning teams often tended to define community engagement in very process oriented statutory terms; it is a legislated part of the decision-making process that they are required to go through in order to get a plan gazetted.

More often than not, the goal is to get the plan gazetted, rather than to get the community engaged with the planning process or planning outcomes. In this context community engagement is, unfortunately, often regarded as a “necessary” evil, rather than a crucial part of the design process. There are, of course, always exceptions, but it has been my experience that land-use (and infrastructure) planners and engineers are generally NOT great listeners. Great problem solvers, but not great listeners. There are a host of professional cultural reasons for this that I don’t have space to explore here, but it was something I observed over and over again during my time working in land-use planning for a State government department.

What is community engagement for the community development & service delivery teams?

The community development team, on the other hand define community engagement as the process of getting people better connected into the community and for ensuring that the services they were designing met the specific needs of the people they were working with.

For these teams, an engaged community is a positive outcome in, and of, itself. One of the metrics for a socially sustainable community is the number and quality of network connections through that community. For example, the level of volunteerism. Another success measure is the number of people who are active users of public facilities, such as libraries, community centres, parks and gardens. These are places where casual, informal, connections are created. These connections create a sense of belonging and community engagement.

What is community engagement for the communications and marketing team?

For the communications and marketing teams community engagement is generally measured in terms of “positive feelings” about the organisation.

These teams tend to define “engagement” in similar terms to commercial brand managers. “What is state of our relationship with the community? Do people like us or do they hate us? If they like us, can we make them like us more? If they hate us, what do we need to do to turn that around?” Sometimes there will be people tasked with improving the relationship between the community and the Council in practical ways through improved work practices, culture, governance and transparency etc. But, the key tools available to the communications and marketing team are control of the organisational “brand” through events, collateral, and media. These are the tools they have control over, so these are the tools they spend most of their time thinking about and implementing.

What is community engagement for extension (or education) teams?

Extension, or education, is all about developing the “capacity” of an individual (and through the individual the broader community) to do something new or better than they were previously doing it.

During my undergraduate degree we spent quite a lot of time learning about “Landcare”, and iconic land management program here in Australia, for helping farmers to acquire new knowledge and skills that would both improve farm productivity and environmental sustainability. The program was based on a peer learning model with lots of farm visits. There were no classrooms. The program was so successful that the “Care” brand was extended into “Coastcare” and “Bushcare” which are volunteer programs focused on sustainability outcomes.

Many government agencies run lots and lots of different similar “extension” programs, whether they be in local land management, or how to home compost, or how to breast feed. The community engagement goal is to increase the capacity of the community to do something better.

So, there’s no single answer to the question “what is community engagement?”

These differences are profound. It isn’t simply that words have two meanings or more – [Eds. Note: Thank you Robert Plant.] The differences are conceptual and cultural, and to a great extent, values based. Which would explain why they were being clung to so very tightly by the teams involved. Hence, and completely unsurprisingly, the tension. So who’s right. All of them and none of them. Each working definition of community engagement is correct in its own context. The only error is to exclude the possibility that it can validly mean something else to a person working in a different context. The final rub? Community engagement means different things to different people in different parts of an organization. No big surprise there when you say it out loud. So why is it so hard for a group of people to reach that conclusion and to use that information for an organizations’ benefit?

Community engagement is BOTH a process AND an outcome

One of the key outcomes of this conversation for me was the realisation that “community engagement” is both a noun and a verb. Even in the 4 examples above community engagement is BOTH a process and an outcome. For the land-use planners, the primary question is “has the community had an opportunity to provide input into the plan?” For the community development work, their are two parallel questions, “are we providing the services the community needs?” and “is the community well connected and involved in public life?“. For the communications and marketing teams, the central question is “how does the community feel about us?” And finally, for the extension teams, their concern is “has the community changed its behavior?

In summary the, community engagement is about (1) decision making, (2) relationship development, or (3) capacity building. This is interesting, because traditionally community engagement training has adopted the International Association for Public Participation Spectrum as its starting point. The limitation of the Spectrum is that it is a very useful framework for community engagement around decision-making, but is less useful for relationship development and capacity building.

The Community Engagement Triangle

This got us thinking about the relationship between these three objectives. They clearly aren’t mutually exclusive. But some projects lean more heavily toward one outcome that one or another of the others. So, some engagement processes are all about decision-making. Others might be 50-50 relationship development and capacity building. Another might sit squarely in the middle of all three. As we wandered along, we started to conceptualise the three objectives as the 3 corners of a triangle:

  1. Decision making,
  2. Relationship development
  3. Capacity building

In the graphic I’ve put “decision-making” at the pinnacle. This is NO reflection on its relative importance compared to the other two objectives. The idea of the triangle is twofold. First, it acknowledges explicitly that there is more than one potential objective from a process of community engagement. More specifically, it positions “decision-making” as just one of (at least) three potential objectives for the organisation. It thus helps to “level” or “democratize” the objectives. Each is valid. Each is actually more than valid. Each is an essential and core business for most organizations. Secondly, the triangle is conceptual design support tool.

The community engagement triangle

The more detailed version is designed to make a group of people place their projects in the context of the 3 objectives. Inevitably they will each have different ideas about the priority of engagement objectives. This tension provides an opportunity for a conversation between the team members. It is, therefore, a thinking tool. And is useful only insofar as it forces two or more people to talk about what they are trying to achieve collectively. Once the objective is clear, then the conversation can turn to strategy, tools and techniques.

What does Google have to say about community engagement?

Despite the practical difficulties in defining community engagement, many have tried. Type “community engagement” into Google and this is what pops up courtesy of Wikipedia:

“Community engagement refers to the process by which community benefit organizations [emphasis added] and individuals build ongoing, permanent relationships for the purpose of applying a collective vision for the benefit of a community.”

This seems to fit neatly with the working definition of community engagement being used by the community development sector. I have three difficulties with this definition. First, it excludes other equally valid definitions. Secondly, I’d never heard the expression community benefit organizations used before. If you’re in the same boat, this blog post covers it nicely. In short, a “community benefit organisation” is otherwise known as a “not-for-profit” or the “third-sector”. Which is where my third objection comes in, although the examples I have chosen to focus on above are all from the (local) government sector, they need not have been.

Community engagement is something that is done by the public sector, the private sector and the third sector.

In short, while the wikipedia definition of community engagement is valid, it is very narrow. So I’m not a fan. Let’s go to a more reliable source.

How does the United Nations define community engagement?

Way back in 2005, a United Nations conference was held in Brisbane, Australia. The conference dealt specifically with the subject of community engagement and was attended by more than 2,300 people from 44 countries. The major conference output was the Brisbane Declaration. The Declaration was prepared following deliberative discussion and feedback prior to and during the conference. The process of developing the Declaration aimed to act as a catalyst for mobilizing the global community and developing common understanding, shared visions and goals. Following a long preamble, the Declaration states that community engagement is a two-way process:

By which the aspirations, concerns, needs and values of citizens and communities are incorporated at all levels and in all sectors in policy development, planning, decision-making, service delivery and assessment;


By which governments and other business and civil society organisations involve citizens, clients, communities and other stakeholders in these processes.

We see that even a meeting of the worlds best and brightest define community engagement as a process looking towards an end goal of making decisions about policy, services, and plans. It ignores the concept of “community engagement” as an outcome in, and of, itself. This focus reflects the roots of the Declaration in the IAP2 framework. The shortcomings of which, we have already touched on above. This definition fails to address the moment when two members of a community meet for the first time, perhaps over a coffee, and share their personal stories, not in aid of policy development, but simply as a mechanism for personal exploration and to make a human connection.

An “engaged” community, is, in part at least, a community where lots of these types of conversations are facilitated every day through, yes, better designed policy, plans, and places.

What does community engagement meant the professions?

If community engagement is contextual, in part this is because the professions respond to the concept in different ways. I’ve briefly explored five different conceptualisations below by five different professional groups. This is by no means a complete listing. I have, for example, left out “community artists”, “urban designer” and “place makers”, all of whom are intimately involved in encouraging the people to engage with places in ways that lead to broader definitions of community engagement.

How does the International Association for Public Participation defines community engagement?

IAP2 – the International Association for Public Participation – is the preeminent international organization advancing the practice of public participation. In more recent years, the language of “community engagement” has been adopted by the IAP2 and community engagement practitioners who have undertaken its training. “Public participation” has gradually taken a backseat to “community engagement” in international parlance. This is evidenced by a quick check of Google Trends for search term preferences. Where once “public participation” dominated, over the past six years “community engagement” has gradually, but irrevocably come to rule the roost! [Ed’s note: Perhaps it is time for a name change? IACE perhaps?]

The IAP2 website states:

‘Public participation’ means to involve those who are affected by a decision in the decision-making process. It promotes sustainable decisions by providing participants with the information they need to be involved in a meaningful way, and it communicates to participants how their input affects the decision. The practice of public participation might involve public meetings, surveys, open houses, workshops, polling, citizen’s advisory committees and other forms of direct involvement with the public. [emphasis added]

The core values are activated through the Engagement Spectrum. The IAP2 Engagement Spectrum is explicitly designed to support public involvement – community engagement – around decision making. While it is useful in this context, it is less useful when you step outside these boundaries.

How does the International Association for Community Development defines community engagement?

The International Association for Community Development (IACD) doesn’t once mention “community engagement” on its website. What they do say is:

“Community development is a set of practices and methods that focus on harnessing the innate abilities and potential that exist in all human communities to become active agents in their own development and to organise themselves to address key issues and concerns that they share.” [emphasis added]

The stated role of the IACD is explicitly political:

“We support development agencies and practitioners to build the capacity of communities, to realise greater social and economic equality, environmental protection and political democracy.” [emphasis added]

And the site invites visitors to connect with community development activists around the globe. If this is not “engagement” then what is?

The practice of community development promotes capacity building and engagement with politics, society, and the environment. On the rare occasions that IAP2 methods do this, it is generally in passing, rather than the primary outcome – which is to utilise community input to make “better” decisions.

How does the (American) National Association of Government Communicators defines community engagement?

The (American) National Association of Government Communicators also fails to mention community engagement explicitly. However, it does have an extensive Code of Ethics that includes the following statement.

We believe that truth is inviolable and sacred; that providing public information is an essential civil service; and that the public-at-large and each citizen therein has a right to equal, full, understandable, and timely facts about their government.

With regards to “community engagement”, the Code focuses on public participation is decision making:

Members will:

Identify publicly the names and titles of individuals involved in making policy decisions, the details of the decision-making processes and how interested citizens can participate.

Wow! That’s worth repeating, they promise to “identify publicly the names and titles of individuals involved in making policy decisions“. That’s a huge call to make as a professional officer working in any bureaucracy. It’s also highly contentious from a good practice perspective given the potential impacts on the individuals affected. Think about the workload implications if you are personally nominated to receive ALL of the public feedback about a contentious project that affects a lot of people. Think, tidal wave! Also, from an OH&S perspective, it is often better for the organization to own the decision, rather than any one individual.

However, leaving that aside, the commitment to providing accurate information is at the root of good quality community engagement around decision-making, relationship-development, and capacity-building. So, government communicators have a critical role to play in the community engagement process. All too often this role is questioned by “field” engagement practitioners because of the tension between “listening” and “telling”, particularly when those field workers feel that the story that is being told has been “polished” to the edge of reality! The tension between “brand protection” and “accurate information” is a tightrope that government communicators have to walk every day.

How does the International Society of Extension Education define community engagement?

Unfortunately, because of its predominant history of use the term “extension education” is “owned” by the agricultural extension sector. I say unfortunately, because the practices of extension methodologies are used to promote better practices across a whole range of issues. Waste minimization and home composting are two “urban” examples of programs Councils put a lot of time and effort into.

India has been a hotbed of research in the area of agricultural extension. The website explains the intimate relationship between “extension” and “community development”:

In India, extension work was primarily started by F.L. Brayne (1920) in Punjab the term community development and extension education became more popular with the launching of community development projects in 1952 and with the establishment of the national extension service in 1953. Since then, community development has been regarded as a program for all-round development of the rural people and extension education as the means to achieve this objective.

The site also provides a long list of working definitions of extension education. I’m not going to post the full list here. It is, however, worth considering a short list in the context of “community engagement”.

Extension education is education for the betterment of people and for changing their (attitudes, practices and) behavior.

Extension education is the dissemination of useful research findings and ideas among rural people to bring out desirable changes in their social and cultural behavior.

Extension is to teach a person how to think, not what to think, and to teach people, to determine accurately their own needs to find solution to their own problems and to help them acquire knowledge and develop convictions in that direction.

Extension is an out-of school system of education in which adults and young people learn by doing.

In combination then, “extension education” about bettering people’s lives by giving them useful information and teaching them how to think about their own needs so that they can choose how to change their own attitudes and practices for both their own benefit and broader community benefit. It goes without saying that if the participants do not engage with the learning process, they will not learn anything or change anything. The process of engagement is therefore integral to the extension officers task.

How does the Gov 2.0 crowd see community engagement?

The new kid on the block is the Gov 2.0 crowd promoting more open government through technology and technological innovation. The Open Government Partnership are the big players in this space. The Open Government Partnership is:

“…a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

The Partnership has the following to say in regards to its approach to citizen participation (yet another synonym for “community engagement”):

Governments [should] seek to mobilize citizens to engage in public debate, provide input, and make contributions that lead to more responsive, innovative and effective governance.

In more detail, the Partnership requires that participating governments state explicit support for “civic participation” (another synonym). The exact wording of the Open Government Declaration, which all member state are required to sign off on, states:

We value public participation of all people, equally and without discrimination, in decision making and policy formulation.

Public engagement, including the full participation of women, increases the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight. [emphasis added]

We commit to making policy formulation and decision making more transparent, creating and using channels to solicit public feedback, and deepening public participation in developing, monitoring and evaluating government activities.

We commit to protecting the ability of not-for-profit and civil society organizations to operate in ways consistent with our commitment to freedom of expression, association, and opinion.

We commit to creating mechanisms to enable greater collaboration between governments and civil society organizations and businesses.

The explicit emphasis, unsurprisingly, is on the ability of citizens (and by extension, the broader community) to influence the activities of the government.

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