Engaging with communities
Community engagement defined
Community engagement refers to the connections between governments, individuals and communities on a range of policy, program and service issues. It encompasses a wide variety of government–community interactions ranging from information sharing to community consultation and, in the case of negotiation tables, active participation in government decision-making processes.
Effective community engagement allows government to tap into diverse perspectives and potential solutions to improve the quality of its decisions. It enables individuals and communities to better understand the processes of government and to build their capacity to participate in decision-making processes through the development of confidence, skills, knowledge and experience.
The Queensland Government has adopted the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's engagement model, using the following definitions:
- Information - a one-way relationship in which government delivers information to citizens
- Consultation- a two-way relationship in which citizens provide feedback on issues defined by government
- Active participation - a collaboration in which citizens actively shape policy options, but where government retains the responsibility for final decisions.
Each of the levels of engagement is appropriate in particular circumstances to achieve particular outcomes. At times it will be necessary to engage at two or more levels to achieve the desired outcomes.
Information provision is a one-way relationship in which government disseminates information to individuals and communities. It covers passive access to information by individuals through avenues such as the telephone, publications and websites, and more active measures by government to disseminate information to communities through education and awareness activities. Effective information provision allows communities to understand an issue and to decide whether they want to participate in a consultation or active participation activity.
Information and communication technologies enable government to move beyond one-way information sharing to information exchange with communities.
Effective information sharing requires information that:
- is accurate, easy to access and easy to understand
- is relevant and appealing to the intended audience
- has appropriate methods of delivery
- is tailored in language and style where necessary
- directs people to where they can access further information.
Consultation is a two-way relationship in which government seeks and receives the views of individuals or communities on policies, programs or services that affect them directly, or in which they may have a significant interest.
Consulting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the early stages of developing policies, programs or services helps to build successful and ongoing relationships which are critical for partnerships. Consultations can be used to help frame an issue, identify or assess options and evaluate existing policies, programs or services. Effective consultation also enables public officials to better understand a community’s requirements and environment and can establish a sense of community ownership of a program or policy.
Conversely, failing to consult, or consulting after key decisions have been made, risks perpetuating past failures of government working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and can result in community members being unreceptive to an activity or idea.
Effective consultation requires building a shared understanding of how community input will inform policy or decision-making processes and how timely feedback will be provided to participants to ensure their views have been understood and accurately recorded, and ultimately to demonstrate how the information provided by the community contributed to the final outcome.
Active participation recognises and acknowledges a role for individuals and communities in shaping policy dialogue and proposing policy, program and service options.
Active participation processes enable individuals and communities to raise their own issues with government and can also encourage or enable participants to take responsibility for their contribution to solutions. Responsibility for authoritative decisions or policy formulation rests democratically with government but may, in some instances, be shared with communities.
Partnerships are an important example of active participation and are based on mutual respect, reciprocity, shared responsibility and accountability between government and communities. Equality between partners and mutual learning underpin effective partnerships. Operating in partnership with communities builds long-term relationships based on equity of power and influence and has the potential of leading and contributing to reconciliation, community wellbeing and economic stability, and assisting in building community capacity.
Actively involving the community in policy deliberation and program and service planning requires specific tools to facilitate learning, debate and the development of options and proposals.
Chapter 7 of this guide provides summary information on a range of methods and techniques that can be used to promote information sharing, consultation and active participation.
The following guiding principles provide the basis for working more effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to achieve outcomes. In some cases agencies may need to reassess the principles they currently use to develop policies and plan and deliver programs and services to those communities.
The principles highlight the importance of building trust and mutual respect via the engagement process and the reciprocal relationships and partnerships that can result from effective engagement.
A shared vision – Valuing the experiences and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in developing a shared commitment for the future.
Mutual respect – Sharing, listening to and understanding the views, concerns and experiences of others.
Awareness – Learning about history, cultures, societies, customs and contemporary experiences of communities.
Shared responsibility – Forging relationships in a context of reciprocity, cooperation and obligation.
Building capacity – Empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in planning, managing and delivering policies, programs and services.
Improved coordination – Developing and delivering related policies, programs and services in a more coordinated and integrated way.
Inclusiveness – Developing initiatives based on the views and aspirations of the whole community, and enabling the involvement of those least likely to have a say.
Appropriate timeframes – Allocating appropriate time to establish relationships and facilitate and enable the participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Sustainability – Giving priority to initiatives that encourage self-reliance, sustainable economic and social development, and that develop the capacity of communities to deal with issues as they arise.
Integrity – Developing initiatives in ways that build trust and confidence between communities and government.
Critical success factors
Maximising the opportunity for successful engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities requires:
- establishing relationships and a shared vision
- government and community commitment
- confidence in the process
- clarity of roles and responsibilities
- a clear purpose and objectives with tangible outcomes
- respecting diversity.
Establishing relationships and a shared vision
Open and accountable engagement practices and processes that genuinely inform decision making will assist in increasing community trust and confidence in government. Building and sustaining a relationship over time will also assist in developing rapport and trust and may help to overcome previous negative experiences.
Building a shared vision requires openness, honesty and sincerity. It is important to enter a community and/or a discussion with an open mind. In some situations Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will use others to put their ideas forward. Public officials may be expected to do the same. Sometimes matters of importance cannot be approached too quickly or directly and good judgement is required about when it is appropriate to discuss the purpose of the visit.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will relate to what public officials do more than what they say or who they are. Public officials are advised to be down-to-earth and honest. They should never promise anything that has not previously been endorsed by the government.
Government and community commitment
Commitment to the engagement process and achievement of the best possible outcomes for both the community and the government means ensuring that:
- both public officials and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders have the capacity to engage effectively
- there is transparency and accountability in the process
- there is clarity about the level of community influence
- expectations are managed
- appropriate time and resources are allocated to the engagement process
- engagement activities are well managed and coordinated within and between government agencies.
Confidence in the process
Transparency and accountability in the engagement process, and an understanding of how the process will contribute to outcomes, are vital. This requires confidence in the processes for implementing, delivering and evaluating the community engagement activity and clarity about the level of influence individuals involved in the engagement process will have on the final decision. People who believe they can genuinely influence the outcome of an engagement process are more likely to dedicate their time and energy to becoming involved.
General canvassing of community views is not appropriate if there is already a preferred government option. Seeking comment on a preferred option late in the process will raise community expectations and reduce confidence in the integrity of the engagement process.
Clarity of roles and responsibilities
The roles and responsibilities of the public officials, decision makers and members of the community participating in an engagement activity should be clearly defined and communicated to the community. This will assist in clarifying the level of influence of those involved in the engagement process and in managing expectations. It may be important for public officials to explain that whilst they represent their departments they often do not have the authority to make promises of change. It may also be helpful to explain the role of public officials in conveying accurate information from the community to the elected government that is responsible and accountable for the final decision.
Clear purpose and objectives with tangible outcomes
It is important to clearly communicate the objectives of the engagement process to members of the community. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders expect to see tangible community outcomes from their involvement with government, and they expect feedback on how their views and opinions have been considered in government decision making.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are diverse, dynamic and multi-faceted with varying cultures, laws and traditions. There are remote, rural and urban communities. The protocols and processes used when engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will vary from community to community. A ‘one-model-fits-all’ approach is not appropriate. A formula that is successful in one community may not be successful in another. Preparing and undertaking effective community engagement starts with understanding and respecting differences. Consideration needs to be given to historical experiences, cultural backgrounds, language, age, gender and literacy. It is important to be aware of these as failure to consider these elements will affect the engagement process and the outcomes.