Whether the ‘host’ or main entity leading your engagement efforts is a community group, special-interest organization, or local, state, or federal government agency it is absolutely critical that your internal policies, communications, and expectations align with, and support your engagement goals and expectations.

Far too often, organizations and agencies have spoken the language of 'engagement' without being willing or able to adopt appropriate policies or internal processes that effectively incorporate the input they derive from stakeholders.

Because each organization has a unique set of political, structural, operational, and historical characteristics that shape how it has evolved and operates, moving toward a more community-focused engagement strategy will be driven by the organizational context and imperatives within which you are working. There are no easy solutions - only important questions your organization would do well to consider.

While the following table identifies competing paradigms, engagement and governance strategies are better seen as a continuum rather than a series of dichotomous choices. As such, it is best to consider where along the continuum of each of these concepts your organization currently is, and most importantly what you can do differently to move towards the right of this spectrum (Adapted from Adams, 2013).

Paradigm choices for developing and implementing strategy options

Government led Community led
Government and community groups make separate decisions Joint decision making between community groups and government ( e.g. on investment principles, implementation, guidelines)
Short-term vision Long-term vision
Traditional or prescriptive process Evolving process
Problem focus System focus
Prescribed activity orientation Outcome orientation
Grass roots
Narrow focus, (e.g. efficiency) Complexities acknowledged
Single dimension focus (e.g. technical) Holistic (e.g. 1STEEEP factors)
Single discipline or specialization Multi- or trans-disciplinary
Reactive Proactive
Independent or dependent Interdependent

'Experts' and the Community Engagement Process

A fundamental challenge facing many engagement efforts and more consistent governance is what is often considered the 'expert model' - the tendency for agencies, regulators, and others with technical expertise to assume that they understand the problem and solutions better than those they are seeking to engage. Experts, by virtue of their scientific and technical knowledge, also occupy a position of authority and power in contemporary decision-making (Alter et. al Deliberative Democracy and Community Development, forthcoming). In each case, the risk to relationships, trust, and outcomes can be considerable. Mitigating these conditions, both internally and externally (relative to your engagement processes) will be essential to your long-term success.

1 STEEEP refers to Social, Technical, Economic, Environment, Ethical and Political factors