How to Make Community Engagement Work in Your Community
Brittany Bruce, Ryan Lipcsei and Tara Vinodrai / April 27, 2015
Community engagement is widely accepted as critical for the success of economic development initiatives. Yet, there are often substantial obstacles and barriers to achieving success. How can we achieve high quality community engagement? And, what tactics can we use to overcome these obstacles and barriers?
We had the opportunity to tackle these questions in a new report released by the Economic Developers Council of Ontario (EDCO). Our report draws on a session at EDCO’s annual conference, entitled Rural & Small Communities – Evolving the Competitive Edge: Rural Community Engagement. The session provided a forum for economic development practitioners and policymakers to explore the challenges they often face in the pursuit of high quality community engagement, and the tools they use to address them.
With the help of students in the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development graduate program, we identified four main themes emerging from roundtable discussions during the session. These themes, the lessons they teach us about community engagement, and the tools that the participants are using to enhance community engagement are presented below.
1) Diverse Perspectives
Anyone who has led public engagement efforts will tell you that some faces become very familiar, while others are never seen at all. Some groups are challenging to engage for a variety of reasons; they may choose not to engage, they may not find the channels for feedback convenient, or their opinions may be crowded out by opposing groups. For example, old voices can see new opinions as irrelevant as they are not really ‘part’ of the community. This may lead to non-participation by newcomers, and overrepresentation of long-time citizens. Similarly, in cottage or otherwise seasonal communities, it may be a challenge to engage part-time residents who are less able or willing to be invested in their community. Regardless of the challenges, it is always critical to make sure various groups are included in community discussions.
Lesson: Use multiple channels for engagement to capture a diversity of perspectives and reach all corners of your community.
Tools: Youth-oriented Speakers Corner booths, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), traditional media (print and radio), and issue-based committees (as not everyone will be interested in the same issue).
Both governments and citizen groups have been known to avoid participation in community engagement because they see it as costly and time consuming. Tension between these groups may hinder the success of engagement, as can past failures in this area. Strong leadership from all sides is key to the success of community engagement because it promotes transparency and improved communication.
Lesson: Provide feedback and follow through on public suggestions to ensure that the community sees concrete results and knows that their input has made a difference.
Tools: Create a dialogue among stakeholders, utilize problem-solving techniques, and be respectful of people’s time.
The physical geography of an area can impact the effectiveness of engagement strategies. For example, engagement in rural areas has inherent challenges, such as lack of transit, which can make it difficult to determine the ideal times and locations for meetings to maximize attendance.
Lesson: Online tools can help facilitate engagement, as long as the appropriate infrastructure is in place.
Tools: PlaceSpeak, a location based community consultation platform; PowerNoodle, a cloud-based platform that helps organizations overcome traditional decision-making challenges; and Gamestorming, a model of how to work more effectively and efficiently that is based on how Silicon Valley operates.
The final theme concerns expectations. Community members may not understand the reality of what can be accomplished within limited budgets and time frames. As a result, community expectations may not be in line with what is actually possible. Expectations can be managed by hosting a series of smaller meetings (as opposed to one large meeting) where residents have better access to the people in charge, and more opportunities to be heard. Smaller-scale efforts organized by issue or theme can often achieve greater results since citizens and key stakeholders may only have an interest in certain aspects of a project.
Lesson: A small-scale strategy may lead to stronger engagement.
Tools: Issue-based committees can engage citizens in the issues they are most interested in. Role playing—such as allowing citizens to divide money amongst different community needs—can not only highlight constraints, but can also provide insight into what the community deems as most important. Sector-based events and trade fairs can provide access to target audiences interested in a particular issue.
Keep the conversation going
Public participation is often seen as time-consuming with few tangible outcomes; but with a few tools, it can become an enjoyable process that yields valuable information. It was clear from just one 90-minute session at the EDCO conference that economic development professionals are passionate about engaging with their communities and eager to learn from them. We hope the above lessons and tools will facilitate the exchange of ideas.
Are there other challenges that you have experienced with community engagement that are not listed here?
Is your municipal government using innovative techniques to engage your community? We would love to hear about them.
About the authors
Brittany Bruce is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo-Wilfrid Laurier University Geography and Environmental Management Graduate Program. Her research interests include: local and global food system sustainability, regional and community development, and rural engagement.
Ryan Lipcsei is a graduate student in the University of Waterloo Local Economic Development program. His research interests include rural communities, their local economies and regional solutions to their common problems.
Dr. Tara Vinodrai is Director of the Local Economic Development graduate program at the University of Waterloo. She is an expert on urban and regional development, innovation and clusters, and the creative/cultural economy.
About the series
Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.
Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.
The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.