What is Community Engagement, and how do we measure it, apply it and improve it?

In the latest guest blog from Dr Robin Pharoah, Director of Future Agenda, our Commission expert puts his ethnography expertise to task to define what we mean by ‘community engagement’.

Senior local government officers often comment “We don’t do community engagement well here.” To which my response is, “What do you mean? Do you mean that you do too many surveys? Or not enough surveys? Or that you do the wrong the types of survey? Or that you don’t use survey results to inform policy decisions? Or that you want to do more ethnographic engagement? Or is it your communications? Or the levels of dissatisfaction within your borders? Or the lack of minority representation in decision-making forums? Or the events you run? How do you know that you don’t do it well here? What measures are you using? And who are you comparing yourselves to?”

I think that both practitioners and citizens alike need to know what community engagement is, and what it is for. Practitioners need a sound, overarching mission, and a meaningful set of measures by which they can judge performance. Let me offer a straw man to start working with, the potential beginnings of a solution. I think that all of the activities listed under community engagement could be defined as no less than the relationship between citizen and (in this case local) state. They define the interface between residents and public service providers. And yes, as implied, I would include frontline service delivery in a local authority’s community engagement activities.

Furthermore, I look at lists of ideological drivers behind community engagement activities and strategies and I see a common thread. They all hover around the fundamental principles of democracy. As a crude measure of the effectiveness of community engagement over the last ten years then, it is useful to consider this table from the electoral commission:


Turnout in UK local elections























Outside of those years in which local elections have coincided with general elections, voter turnout has remained resolutely static below 40%, and it would be fair to say that a good proportion of those that do turn out have national, rather than local, politics in mind. So perhaps no one is doing community engagement well, yet.

To me, in thinking about the future of community engagement, there are two primary problems. The first is the problem of knowing exactly what ‘community engagement’ is (let’s call this ‘the definition question’); the second is the problem of knowing what it’s for (let’s call this ‘the ideological question’).

Even within local government there is no standard model for community engagement. Some councils have ‘community engagement teams’, while others do not. Some have clearly defined community engagement strategies, others do not. Some see community engagement as sitting firmly within their communications function, some see it as a key strand in delivering on a commitment to equality, others as the way they should be conducting consultations, and yet others as an ethos to be shared across all council functions and even partner organisations. None of them is wrong (since there are no shared definitions around what is ‘right’), but this diversity certainly doesn’t help when trying to define what best practice is, let alone to share it.

We need to look at the ideological question: what is community engagement for? Because I sympathise with the practitioners; without knowing exactly what community engagement is for, what else can they do but list their activities? Some may now be shouting at me that it is clear what community engagement is for, but I suspect that what is clear to one, may not be the same as what is clear to another. Their different claritications however are likely to come from the following list of community engagement objectives:

  • Equal representation of all communities in local decision-making
  • Inclusion of all in decision-making processes
  • Citizen/resident participation in the delivery of local services (‘Big Society’ / ‘Active citizenship’ etc.)
  • Proper consultation of residents before making decisions
  • Feedback / Policy or service evaluation / Local intelligence gathering
  • De-radicalisation
  • Consumer/user/citizen -focused service-delivery/policy-making/service-design
  • Social cohesion

It’s a long list, but all of these objectives can be found among the plethora of policy and strategy documents relating to community engagement produced in the last 10 years. In fact objectives change as governments (both central and local) change. They differ depending on the histories and priorities of organisations, they shift as policy focus shifts, and they are emphasised or de-emphasised depending on the news cycle.

In this context, it is no wonder perhaps that community engagement practitioners are often accused of taking a ‘tick box’ approach. Given mission statements and objectives that change with the winds and job descriptions that vary over the minutest of geographies, the safest option is often to return to the community engagement toolkit and reel off a trusted list of activities. For me, the mission of community engagement must therefore be elevated from adjunct local government activity, to the core expression of democracy in local government and politics.

On the 12th April, the Westco Commission, in partnership with Future Agenda, hosted a workshop on the “Future of Community Engagement”. Facilitating a workshop with this title could be regarded as something of a poisoned chalice. But having discussions such as these are the first step to shaping and agreeing a best practice definition and strategy of community engagement for application in the future.

In the coming weeks, we at the Westco commission will be working to develop a model of community engagement that is fit for purpose over the next decade. In partnership with Future Agenda and participants in the Westco Commission’s April 12th “Future of Community Engagement” workshop, we have also produced a set of insights into the future of community engagement, which can be viewed here. We would welcome your views and participation in the discussion.