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Why Community Engagement Matters

Citizens are ‘engaged’ when they play a meaningful role in the deliberations, discussions, decision-making and/or implementation of projects or programs affecting them. Accordingly, organizational and government leaders need to broaden the way they see their responsibilities to include roles as facilitator, supporter, collaborator, and empower of citizens and stakeholders.

This change requires letting go of some of the traditional reins of power and trusting that citizens can and will effectively engage in the issues. The result is a partnership(s) that is nearly always healthy for a community and can more effectively address the issue or problem.

While research regarding the benefits and importance of community engagement varies, several key opportunities are commonly identified. Among these are:

  • Increase the likelihood that projects or solutions will be widely accepted. Citizens who participate in these processes show significant commitment to help make the projects happen.
  • Create more effective solutions. Drawing on local knowledge from a diverse group creates solutions that are practical and effective. 
  • Improve citizens’ knowledge and skills in problem solving. Participants learn about the issues in-depth. Greater knowledge allows them to see multiple sides of the problem. Citizens can practice communication and decision-making skills.
  • Empower and integrate people from different backgrounds. Groups that feel ignored can gain greater control over their lives and their community. When people from different areas of the community work together, they often find that they have much in common.  
  • Create local networks of community members. The more people who know what is going on and who are willing to work toward a goal, the more likely a community is to be successful in reaching its goals.
  • Create several opportunities for discussing concerns. Regular, on-going discussions allow people to express concerns before problems become too big or out of control.
  • Increase trust in community organizations and governance. Working together improves communication and understanding. Knowing what government, community citizens and leaders, and organizations can and cannot do may reduce future conflict.

(Adapted from Bassler et al, 2008). 

In addition a well-designed engagement effort allows you to identify and understand:

  • Differing values and priorities
  • Differing frames, or ways citizens view the community or a particular project
  • Various alternatives and consequences 
  • Perceptions of benefits and risks
  • Different ideas and potential solutions and actions
  • The characteristics and challenges of your “wicked” issue

References:

 
Bassler, A. et al., "Developing Effective Citizen Engagement: A How-to Guide for Community Leaders." Center for Rural America, 2008.