|Photo: Robert Voors (Flickr)|
To work with communities, though, requires more than just techniques, skills or resources. What is most needed by those representing authority who wish to work with communities is a mindset that:
- is willing to give up the notion of being the “authority,”
- is willing to recognise that wisdom resides within the community,
- is willing to let go of being an “expert,”
- is able to see both the bigger picture as well as the local detail.
Here is an example of some of the hurdles that can occur when a community engagement process is used to produce a community plan and outcomes.
A local authority begins a community engagement process to create a community plan (including outcomes). In doing so, they consult a number of individuals and organisations.
Hurdle Number 1. The consultation at this stage can often only engage with those already engaged. The engagement can exclude many because it is a) at too high a level, b) requires technical or specialised knowledge, c) is couched in unfamiliar language or simply d) the local authority officials are aloof or otherwise do not “fit in.”
Once the consultations have concluded, a set of community outcomes are produced based on all the feedback, discussions and analyses.
Hurdle Number 2. The community plan merges together all the data and information into a single set of outcomes that express an overall community plan for the area. But in doing so, some of the detail particular to unique sectors of that community can get lost in the bigger picture.
The community plan is then used and interpreted by local authority officials.
Hurdle Number 3. Officials can become entrenched in the view that their interpretation of the plan and the outcomes is the right one.
The community outcomes are used by the local authority to decide what projects it wishes to support and which organisations it will enter into alliances or collaboration with in order to proceed.
Hurdle Number 4. If a community group does not undertake projects that fit the community outcomes then it and its projects may not be supported by the local authority. This leaves the organisation two options: a) it can change its projects, programmes or methods to ensure support, or b) it can remain faithful to the neighbourhood within it works but with limited ability to act because of withdrawal of support.
Community engagement certainly has its place, but those undertaking the process need to be very careful that the management of the process does not derail or disengage parts of the community in the process.
For this to happen requires more than simply the techniques, skills and resources of community engagement. To be able to work with a community requires a shift in mindset.