An introduction to community engagement
The community engagement agenda is beset by a whole range of different definitions and understandings of what it means and how it can be ‘done’ in practice. At changes, we keep being asked to illustrate how community engagement offers ‘Value for Money’. This raises an immediate question for us:
Value for whom?
Depending on which sector we are looking at the list grows, is this value for: service users, customers, government, staff, commissioners, organisations, shareholders, partners, general public (tax payers), neighbourhoods, wider society …?
In addition to economic value we started thinking about the wider value for money of what we call ‘authentic’ community engagement. Our starting point was to imagine our world without any community engagement. It’s bleak:
- Communities without appropriate services
- Services don’t meet needs
- People feel disempowered
- Increased dependency culture
- Apathy and alienation
- Wider intelligence ignored
- Investment with limited return
- Increased waste
- Negative value for money
- Failing organisations and businesses
With all of this at stake, community engagement (done well) is all about value for money – making sure that goods, products and services are fit for purpose and are valued and used. It is about service (or product) shaping: a square peg for a square hole, a round peg for a round hole. This requires organisations or enterprises to:
- be responsive (see information on the changes’ echo framework),
- question the way things are done
- encourage people to be constructively critical (an influential voice –see information on the changes’ Voice framework)
- be explicit about what they are trying to achieve in terms of individual outcomes, service level outcomes and strategic outcomes
Our perspective on community engagement
Value for Money is often talked about in terms of 3 E’s – economy, efficiency and effectiveness. In the current climate of scarce resources, we at changes argue that equity, empowerment & evaluation are also essential considerations.
We think this is about spending more wisely, to gain more in return. Considering:
- what goes into providing a service
- what goes into providing community engagement
- what community engagement brings back into the organisation/enterprise
Community engagement is not an add on, it is about using what you have already got – differently, for example – recognising frontline staff engaging with users/customers as key players in bringing intelligence back into the organisation.
This intelligence leads to more informed and better decisions, products and services.
We think this is about less waste – directing limited resources to get maximum productivity.
- existing contact with users/customers
- staff communication and connection skills
- supporting people to have more autonomy and responsibility
- empowering ways of working
Community engagement makes better use of external contacts and relationships and involves streamlining internal processes: having routes and channels to carry intelligence through the organisation to the point of decisions, design, commissioning and delivery.
We think this is about achieving outcomes that make a positive difference in line with objectives. Any intervention using public money should leave people in a better position to move on and get out of any dependency culture
Considering particular emphasis on:
- equity – outcomes illustrate that those with the least do not lose out the most
- empowerment – increase in people’s independence and ability to act in their own, and collective, interests
Community engagement helps organisations and enterprises to make decisions and achieve the greatest value for money possible for what they do. This has positive outcomes for individuals, communities, services and strategy – examples include:
We think this is about keeping on track, demonstrating value for money and learning lessons
- Whose opinion matters?
- Is Value for Money relative or absolute?
- What specific outcomes do you require – and who for?
- What is the evidence and how is it going to be collected?
- Who is involved in the analysis?
This is about the whole organisation. Community engagement and evaluation should both be integral and costed accordingly