Engaging With Communities: Something’s Not Right

1 December 2013 | Posted In: #119 Summer 2013/14, Community Engagement, Planning for People and Social Issues, | Author: Roberta Ryan

Having engaged with communities on government policy reform and land use planning for about 25 years, Roberta Ryan thinks it’s time to raise a different perspective.

By Associate Professor Roberta Ryan

The usual complaints go something like this….

…From the community

“Why consult us when they’ve already made up their minds?”

“Why is the process so…unintelligible, unpleasant, boring and inconveniently timed, etc. etc?”

“Why is it so hard to be heard?” “We told you all this last time” “What difference does what we say have and how would I know?”

…From the government or proponent

“How do we manage their expectations so they don’t think they have more influence than they do?”

“How can we get good inputs from a broad range of people instead of only hearing from the ill-informed, the ‘usual suspects’ or those with a narrow viewpoint?”

“Why is the community so apathetic – where is everyone else?” “Why are the people who come so angry?”

While these complaints do have elements in common, the parties are clearly coming to engagement with different expectations and anxieties. These feelings are born from a history of often terrible engagement experiences. The end result of all this, and indeed the current state of play, is well-deserved scepticism from communities, lack of trust (on both sides) that manifests in mutual hostility, a lack of insight from government and proponents as to what their role in all this has been, and people with important points of views to share who won’t have any part of it.

Now of course this doesn’t happen all the time – and there are some great examples of community engagement – but sadly not enough.

Governments, proponents and practitioners are usually more than happy to lay the blame on THE ‘community’ and often have little insight as to how we have ended up here. Decades of entrenched poor practices, largely unsatisfactory on both sides, now should be avoided at all costs.

Let me share a different perspective.

The community is doing government, the proponent, the public interest and all of us a favour by freely giving their time to help improve the outcome. Everyone else is on the payroll.

The regular attenders – the folks who diligently show up at most events (often only a handful) – are serving us well and are rarely seen in this light. They are most unlikely to be representative of the wider community’s interests but they are the ones who keep trying on all our behalves. If others don’t come, why is it the community’s fault, rather than those who are supposed to design the processes to make it attractive to participate?

An environmental management program that was run years ago had all the hallmarks of this problem. The ‘experts’ (in this case engineers but it could be bureaucrats, town planners, lawyers, etc.) called public meetings all around the country at 6-8pm to talk about stormwater issues. When evaluating the process and interviewing the experts, they just couldn’t understand why only a hand full of people (mostly retired, older, white men) came to the meetings: ‘when we had catering and we bothered to go to their communities and towns. They are too apathetic to come to the meeting.’

Perhaps there are some obvious and not so obvious reasons for this. Who is free at this time of night (no one with family or caring responsibilities for example)? Who is interested? Who has time? And anyway by advertising a meeting in the local newspaper to come and talk about stormwater, it would not be clear to many, why it is important that they do, and what difference would it make.

An issue in this example was that the experts didn’t think about how stormwater might be of significance to the people they wanted to talk with. What would make the community think it was something that was important for them to have a say about or something that might be interesting or could make a difference to where they lived?

The engineers know how important stormwater management is to communities, but communities may not – and it is not their job to figure it out. If you want someone’s point of view, you need to be able to put the issue in such a way that it is relevant and important to them. Stormwater, among other things, not only affects flooding, but also depending on how it is managed, can make the difference to whether you can swim in your local river or creek.

In redesigning the process, the community was invited to the green-space that sits alongside the river, to come and talk about what the river that runs through town means to them, what role they would like it to have in their town, what they can do to improve its water quality and how much they want to invest in making it cleaner.

The river was significant to the town and people often reminisced about how they could swim in it when they were younger, but sadly not now. Indeed, they mostly didn’t understand what was causing the pollution and why the signs went up some years ago warning of the dangers of contact with the water. In reframing the issue in a way that resonated with the community, hundreds of people, families and kids came out on a Sunday afternoon to have a BBQ, get their faces painted and give their views. Good fun and good input was achieved.

It is possible, with some thought, to make issues relevant to the wider community and help them see how their views can be heard and even make a difference. It’s my experience that the wider community do want to participate in making their worlds and their communities better and they can come in droves and have plenty that is useful to say. It doesn’t cost any more than the failed and dreaded public meeting, and will be much more effective if the issue is described in ways that matter to communities and if the processes are designed as accessible to a wide range of people.

Besides having a change of attitude toward the community, governments, proponents and practitioners are responsible for conceiving of and delivering engagement processes that show people how their input can make a difference. If the ‘wrong’ people come or they are not well informed enough about the issue to provide useful inputs – it is poor process not self-interested or apathetic communities that are the reason. n

There are few basic steps, besides making an issue relevant, that can make for better engagement.

  1. Be clear about what influence the community can have, who makes the decisions and when, and then make sure that is communicated – so people know what they are up for and can chose whether they want to participate.
  2. Respond to the ideas the community have provided, and communicate what difference if any they made, and why.
  3. Get the right inputs into the process: junk = junk out. Educate people so their input has a chance to be valuable.
  4. If you don’t want just the ‘usual suspects’, go to where other people are and make it worth their while (with offers of fun, money, the capacity to make a difference, or whatever the motivation that might work in that community) to give up their time and ideas.
  5. Do a bit of research about how that community lives their lives – good processes are often made relevant to how people live life and relate to their community.

Associate Professor Roberta Ryan is Director of the UTS Centre for Local Government and the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government