Community Engagement Post #1: On what community engagement is and what makes it so challenging

By Patricia Quintero Estades

Last summer we launched the LA Civics Initiative – a collaboration with City Impact Lab meant to start a conversation about civic participation in Los Angeles. Through collaborative projects and workshops, we sought to figure out how the city’s residents can become more civically-minded as well as civically-active.

Living in a representative democracy, most citizens think that our civic duties begin and end with voting (and filing our taxes) – but civic engagement should be more comprehensive than that. Even if you take a narrow view of civic engagement and define it in terms of electoral participation, you’d find that only about 55% of eligible voters voted in the last presidential election. So even in this narrowest sense, almost half of U.S. citizens do not even feel engaged enough to exercise their right, and their duty, to vote.

In light of this, how can we promote public engagement in local decision-making and governance? In particular, how can we engage community members in more direct and regularly-occurring mediums of participating than just elections?

During our first workshop for the Civics Initiative, we asked participants to define what civics meant to them. The two most commonly used words were “community” and “engaged”. I found this to be quite revealing, and it furthered my interest in looking at community engagement more closely as an important factor in effective governance.

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Community engagement can be defined in many different ways and there are other very similar terms to it such as public engagement and public participation. These terms generally refer to some type of process designed to get a community involved in decision-making. Often, engagement centers around a certain intervention, policy, or program that a government agency, nonprofit organization, or private firm is undertaking that will affect said community.

Community engagement and public participation are becoming more and more pervasive in policy and planning processes. As communities feel that the agencies that intervene in their communities are more and more out of touch with their wants and needs, it becomes increasingly challenging to implement successful programs without buy-in.

In order to improve community buy-in across the country and around the world, the field of planning has created mechanisms to include citizen and community input into planning processes. It has become so important that Participatory Methods is one of the courses that I am taking this semester for my Planning degree. Additionally, participation, engagement, community planning, and communicative planning are the subject of many books and academic articles.

However, getting participation right can be tricky as well as time- and resource-intensive. Getting it right is hard, and planning and city officials have sometimes come to dread it or even resist it. Engaging in a participatory process just because it is mandated can lead to practitioners just going through the motions, resulting in a process that is directionless. It has become increasingly clear that mandating some kind of community input “step” in a process does not guarantee genuine participation from the community at all.

One of the most emblematic writings of public participation is Sherry Arnstein’s A Ladder of Citizen Participation. In it, she organizes different levels of participation into rungs on a ladder to illustrate the fact that there are varying degrees of authenticity when it comes to public participation. In doing so, she illustrates the ways in which agencies’ intentions and their processes to engage communities are not always genuine or valuable. She contends that real participation is the kind where communities actually have enough power to sway decision-making in a substantial way.

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There are a couple of important things to draw from this article – actually there are many, but there are two that I would like to highlight here. The first is the fact that there are right and wrong ways to conduct public participation. Public participation for appearances’ sake is often a waste of time and resources. In fact, the wrong kinds of public participation are generally a waste of time and resources at best. At worst, they could actually work against the success of the intervention or even against the well being of the community.

So, how do you get community engagement right?

Industry experts, the literature, and the participants of our workshop seem to agree that there are certain obstacles that hinder both agencies’ and communities’ ability to take part in good community engagement processes. In our workshop, participants identified baseline knowledge, communication barriers, and a certain disconnect or apathy from residents as major challenges to contend with when trying to promote civic engagement.

In the next few weeks, I will be exploring these and related challenges to community engagement. I will also be talking to professionals who do this work to understand how these challenges have played out in their experiences. Through these conversations, I hope to find potential ways to get past these barriers and achieve more effective engagement experiences. In the following post, we’ll look generally at stakeholder engagement and the importance of building trust.

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