On embedding an engagement culture

A core challenge for any organisation seeking closer engagement with communities is how to move beyond short- to medium-term initiatives that are largely focused on existing needs in the area and into a deeper, more systemic approach to engagement. Based on learning and practice I’ve identified a number of factors that are worth considering in order to maximise the likelihood of such efforts being successful.

Integrate engagement with programme strategy, not as an add on

A good engagement strategy underpins the work of any organisation and integrates with its corporate and communications strategies. It is important to not see engagement as a ‘one shot’ activity, but to be clear about how it integrates with, and supports, the organisation’s strategic direction and its wider communications efforts. Specifically, engagement in this context includes: 

  • the mechanisms by which the organisation identifies and prioritises those communities and organisations that it wants to invest in or work with;
  • the mechanisms by which they then engage those priority communities and organisations 
  • the ongoing delivery and monitoring surrounding those investments and work

It is not enough to identify what great community engagement looks like as a stand alone activity, but to recognise the importance of it integrating with all aspects of the work. 

Purposefully build legitimacy with communities

Working in communities, particularly those characterised by multiple deprivation and disadvantage, can be as difficult, messy and challenging as it can be rewarding and impactful. It’s vital to work with the grain of what exists, rather than trying to impose order on it. 

Working openly and involving citizens in a range of ways, including programme governance, will help develop legitimacy and credibility. In order to develop a positive reputation as a change-making organisation it is crucial to find ways of showing in practice that engagement isn’t an add-on or superficial. Building a track record of community visibility and co-design will help develop the legitimacy to ensure that involvement is successful. 

Be a partner in change

Being a partner in change will require an organisation to stand alongside the communities and groups they work with and fund. This will require them to engage with partner organisations in communities over the long-term, navigating and responding to the inevitable ‘slings and arrows of fortune’ that will be faced along the way. To support this, relevant staff will need to develop a specific skill set, a shared sense of the long-term ambition and an open, honest and trusting relationship with the community. Core skills for good community work and engagement tend to cover managing processes, understanding systems, communication and empathy, negotiation and relationship building (see for example the Scottish Community Development Centre or Manchester City Council’s community engagement framework for examples).  

Anticipate the transition from short-term pilots to longer-term programmes

There are two sides to the core challenge for any organisation trying to move from short-term, demonstrator pilots towards longer-term investment relationships with communities. First, how to do this in such a way that increases the value of their work but without creating a dependency on that funding. Second, how to address issues that might result from communities being under-served by public services. In these areas, options might include working with existing providers to expand their reach into new areas, or working with the community to establish their own, new, models of provision. Both are not without their challenges.  

This is in part a consideration of how to scale for impact. However, the magic of what works in one community or organisational context cannot automatically be spread into other communities or organisations. Often it is the hyper-local context, and specifically the composition of the assets and energy in those contexts, that make things work – or fail. However, it is possible to tease out some of the common threads, such as strong community leadership, reach and trust that are likely to make a particular organisation or initiative work.    

Distinguish between programme and population outcomes

Impacting complex social challenges will take sustained and long-term work. This won’t always be easy or show early results. In particular it’s important not to confuse programme outcomes with whole population outcomes. Programme accountability is about ensuring those delivering programmes in communities are able to account for the outputs and outcomes fo their work with specific cohorts of people. But we can’t hold them account for reductions in, say, childhood obesity or worklessness within the whole population. Too many other factors beyond their control are at play.  

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