Community engagement is an important tool for working collaboratively with residents and other groups of stakeholders to address issues affecting their well-being. When done properly, “community engagement increases community cohesion and allows for the community to have ownership over the outcomes that will ultimately impact them.”1
With the development of technology and the impact of COVID-19, we have seen an increased use of online, digital, and remote forms of engagement. These not only make certain engagement activities more efficient and economic, but also produce more standardized results conducive to analysis and interpretation.
But community engagement can have roadblocks. When you come back to the community, you may receive different and even contradictory responses and attitudes. You may also find certain groups of the population were not reached before; therefore, their involvement and input are missing. It is also possible that the engagement results are inconsistent with other sources of information and there is a lack of information to interpret the engagement results or to investigate the discrepancy. These issues are often the result of us being unclear about the difference between community engagement and customer insight, and us being unclear about the difference between equity and equality.
In the public sector, customers are defined as a group of consumers of public goods and services. We may refer to them as citizens, residents, or the community, depending on the types of public goods and services. Customer insight is understanding why customers care for the public goods and services, as well as their underlying mindsets, moods, motivation, desires, and aspirations that motivate and trigger their attitudes and actions. There is a fundamental difference between customer insight and community engagement. Community engagement is often perception-based, driven by one or several events, while customer insight is satisfaction-based, learned through ongoing activities.
For example, if you were to formulate a transit strategy to redesign the transit network and would like to involve the community, including your residents, community engagement would be a critical step in this process. Through various channels and means—including telephone surveys, online links or platforms, interviews, and focus groups—you would collect a robust set of data that provides an observation or an indication of your customers’ feelings on the redesign. The feedback may include people who haven’t had much experience with transit and people whose primary method of commute is not transit. As you could imagine, if the feedback is not based on usage, the engagement data is susceptible to various factors such as recent transit-related events and other people’s reactions, emotions, and comments on media and social media. Customer insight could help overcome the short-termism and variation by including the measurement of usage and experience. Transit customer insight would include who uses the transit, for what purpose, which route and when, where, and how customers access the transit, and key attributes that affect customer satisfaction, all of which provide richer context and understanding.
Equity vs. Equality
The core of the discussion between equity and equality is to recognize the fact that each of us is different; so are our needs and desires. Many ineffective community engagement efforts only recognize the need for engagement, but fail to differentiate between diverse needs and desires within the population. Way too often, our processes are designed for an “average person,” giving every one of them the same thing (see Figure 1). But there is really no “average person.” In Figure 1, we see three types of people and we have some understanding of what matters to each. We give everyone what they specifically need—that’s equity. This may sound expensive, but in reality, it may just be like what you see in the pictures: three boxes, but allocated differently. What it does take is more forethought.
Ideas to Engage More Effectively
Engagement Is Not the Be-All and End-All
If you actually pay attention to what your community is saying, you can get plenty of early signs about the need to make a difference. If you wait until the last minute when push comes to shove, it will almost certainly be too late to take bold strategic action and instead it will be doomed to fighting a painful rearguard action. An unfortunate example would be the grassroots “Defund the Police” movement.
With the murder of George Floyd, members of the Minneapolis city council moved quickly and passed a veto-proof council majority saying the city would dismantle its police department and move to a community-based public safety model. As part of the resolution, the city council would begin a year-long process of engaging “with every willing community member in Minneapolis” to develop a new public safety model. Naturally, community engagement was supposed to increase residents’ understanding and acceptance and help facilitate the transition. But the 2021 municipal election results2 told a different story:
1. The incumbent mayor, who opposed the dismantle measure, was re-elected.
2. Question 1, a proposal to adopt the mayor-council form of government was passed, which grants the mayor increased oversight over administration.
3. Two city councilmembers who supported overhauling the police lost their bids.
4. Question 2, a proposal to replace the city’s police department with a new department of public safety, was rejected.
If we take a holistic view of the issue, we would complement community engagement with customer insight. In Edmonton, Canada, the city council asked for analysis on how many calls for service are driven by mental health, addictions, homelessness, or other social and public health factors, and how many calls could be better handled by partners. The data could be further disaggregated by demographic attributes such as race, gender, age, and others. Again, when we “listen to” the community, we can avoid having to react and deal with the issue as an emergency.
The Spectrum of Engagement
The idea of the spectrum is to employ varying levels of engagement3 for the diverse needs and desires within the community. In general, there are five levels:
1. Inform: providing residents with relevant information to help them understand a problem, alternatives, opportunities, and solutions. The typical style of this level of engagement is “here’s what’s happening.”
2. Consult: obtaining feedback on what you present, possible solutions, alternatives, analysis, and goals etc. A typical style is “here are some options—what do you think?”
3. Involve: working directly with the community to ensure concerns are understood and ideas are incorporated. A typical style is “here is a problem, what ideas do you have?”
4. Collaborate: working as a team to partner and address the issue together.
5. Empower: shared leadership and decision-making. A typical style is “you care about this issue and are solving it. How can we help?”
From one to five, there is an increasing impact on decisions, accompanied by varied process complexity and resource requirements. Many ineffective community engagements result from the mismatch between levels of engagement and community interests and power.
We Need Better Questions
In many cases, our goal is to obtain community feedback, so how we design a questionnaire matters. It sounds pretty logical to ask the community outright about the issue and ask that they respond., but there’s more to it. Residents may not understand the implications or the underlying assumptions behind questions, particularly when issues are vague and people lack lived experience. For example, the public were asked to weigh in on the Brexit issue: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” It is a simple question and easy to respond to, but the context and consequences are not part of the questionnaire. Many people had second thoughts after voting as they started to see or experience the consequences.
In the context of our work in local government, accountability and transparency matter, so we may think the best way to demonstrate the result is to ask the residents a question such as, “Thinking about all of the programs and services provided by xxx, how would you rate the value you are receiving for your tax dollars?” Or we may be keen to enhance their quality of life, so we ask, “How would you rate the quality of life in xxx?” Once people start answering, they will continue answering questions even if they cannot tell or have little interest in understanding the differences between choices. They may begin to answer indiscriminately just to complete the questionnaire. And we dutifully add up those answers and draw conclusions. It is scary. Unreliable input leads to unreliable output.
To me, the most critical insight is what particular information would be conducive for decision making? The answer to this question will inform the method in which you should engage the community. You must employ a technique for acquiring those insights that is consistent with the nature of the insight you are seeking. If you were to propose or approve budget requests for transit, validating people who have accessed the service before asking any questions would be critical, then embedding questions about key attributes as drivers to people’s satisfaction as follow-up, and lastly, including a simple question to capture topline results to show overall status. For certain issues that are vague, strategic, or complex in which people may not be able to respond concretely, we may consider other means such as interviews and focus groups, which provides opportunities for better context and interpretation. The results still have to be compiled, cleaned, and standardized for decision-making.
The bottom line is that you can’t ask a simple question, such as those found in a survey, while expecting a profound answer.
So why does community engagement matter in the context of public strategy? Integrative stakeholder participation theory argues that community engagement during the strategic planning process of decision making generates beneficial outcomes.4 It is expected to be more beneficial to the process when a variety of stakeholders participate in it as opposed to only the top policy makers and managers of the organizations involved.
The evolution of information technology has made the cost of collecting, storing, and analyzing data much cheaper and the pace much quicker. Naturally, community engagement has become more digitized and simplified and public organizations are more willing to demand the data and collect it. Equally important to this trend is the growing understanding of and capability to convert data into intelligence that is conducive for decision making. Making better use of community engagement not only collects much-needed information to learn about our communities, but also strengthens the rigor for decision making. So, are you ready for your next engagement?
Endnotes and Resources
1 Source: Tamarack Institute.
3 Source: IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum.
4 Hendrick, Rebecca. 2003. Strategic Planning Environment, Process, and Performance in Public Agencies: A Comparative Study of Departments in Milwaukee. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 13(4): 491–519.
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