Is it time for a community engagement detox?


Now it’s February, I can guess that most of our new years resolutions have gone out of the window? Mine was to drink less wine. I have clearly failed!

So let’s now turn our resolutions to our workplaces. I have a suggestion for you. Let’s have a Community Engagement Detox.

I was inspired several years ago by a blog that called for an end to public consultation. If I was more of a hoarder, or perhaps just more organised I’d be able to share the link with you and even tell you who wrote it. But I’m not, so you’ll have to just believe that it was a great article that challenged the traditional public consultation processes used by Australian Government of all levels as being stagnant, outdated and of no real use to anyone. From what I remember, the blog called for more creative and proactive approaches to working more collaboratively with communities.

I don’t think we should ban community engagement or public consultation – I’ve got too much riding on it! But I do think a break from it might be a good thing. Just as we detox from the vices we over indulge with in our everyday lives (mine: wine, chocolate, Facebook, watching tv when I should be exercising), let’s clear out those toxins and take a break from engagement.


To ‘detoxify’ is defined as the removal of an intoxicating or addictive substance. And I think we are addicted to ‘community engagement’. It has taken over our mental, physical and spiritual psyche. As decision-makers within the public sector, we are well and truly hooked on the process of ‘doing some engagement’ as part of our day to day work. Even if it isn’t a personal choice, it’s being pushed on to us from colleagues, managers, and even the community themselves.

But keep a clear head just for a moment, sober up and take a look at what we’re doing. It doesn’t take long to realise that the processes we are following (because we are addicted) aren’t necessarily healthy ones. They are often quick fixes – some might say ‘hits’ of community engagement. We’ll do a quick survey; we’ll run a one-off event where we invite ‘the community’; and gosh, we might even create a Facebook page. Whilst we think we are doing the right thing (and yes, it can feel soooo good), the high is short lived and we quickly thud back to earth with a bang. Until next time we need another hit and then the process is repeated.

Perhaps I’m insulting the engagement processes used by referring to them as toxins. I’ve seen some great use of surveys, one-off meetings and Facebook pages (and many many more techniques) – and yes, they have their place. But please understand they only give you a temporary ‘high’ and don’t promote an ongoing, deeper relationship with the community you serve.

I’m not going to talk about how things could or should be in this blog post. Instead, I’m going to suggest you work it out for yourself. Give yourself a detox. When you are addicted to something, in my opinion you need to go cold turkey. Don’t allow any ‘community engagement’ to happen for the rest of the month. If you’re serious about the detox maybe even the rest of the year. Get your entire organisation to detox. Ban the words. Ban the surveys.

Then let’s see what happens.

I expect that chaos will ensue. If you are addicted to community engagement, likelihood everyone around you is too. Colleagues will tell you that it isn’t possible to deliver a project without community engagement. The community themselves will be banging your door down demanding to know why they haven’t been consulted.

What I hope happens is that we all wake up one morning with a clear head. I hope too those around us will find themselves with clear heads. Along with our colleagues we may begin to see where genuine ongoing engagement with communities could really benefit the work we are doing – and where before hand we were simply doing it for the sake of it. Infact, we might even replace ‘engagement’ with the word ‘relationships’. I’d hope too that the community would feel liberated to take action within their own communities – find leadership, passion and determination from within – to take on the world and create a true sense of ownership in the place they live.

And of course, I’m here to hold your hand through the detox. Think of me as your ‘patch’. I can help you to assess any toxins that have been in your system and provide you with an action plan for initial detox followed by the implemention of a healthy lifestyle for you, your colleagues, your organisational and most importantly, your community. And I’ll keep you high throughout the process!


  • Andrew Coulson February 6, 2013 - 10:09 am Reply

    ‘Colleagues will tell you that it isn’t possible to deliver a project without community engagement’ – I wish

    I think if your doing community engagement properly there isn’t really the need for this full ‘detox’ as with every project you should in reality start with a blank piece of paper and design the engagement process around the objectives, the stakeholders and the outcomes etc.
    This means selecting and if necessary designing a tool or technique that collects the right information, gives people a chance to be involved in the decision process and for me makes participating fun.

    Stagnation comes from following processes and using tools that will give you the same results. Don’t detox just mix it up a little and make things fresh every time. For those who say its not possible… it is.

  • beckyhirst February 6, 2013 - 10:14 am Reply

    Thanks Andrew! Great to hear your thoughts. Always easier to avoid the full detox if there is a more effective way for you! Detoxes themselves can cause HUGE headaches! Of course I’m writing slightly tongue-in-cheek but good to have the conversations about how to keep things healthy.

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