Dr Wendy Sarkissian: Top 10 guiding principles for community engagement

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Effective and responsible community engagement requires careful monitoring of the professional ethics of a process.

Some guiding principles can help, in my experience.

1. Distinguishing between community engagement and communication.

THIS MEANS: Making a clear distinction between the work of public relations, communication and marketing personnel and those undertaking community engagement processes and not allowing a “PR” approach to dominate approaches.

2. Reaching and engaging hard-to-reach groups and individuals.

THIS MEANS: Developing specific approaches to target hard-to-reach and marginalised groups (older people, people with disability, Indigenous people, young people, members of CaLD [culturally and linguistically diverse] communities, isolated and/or rural residents….) and monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of those approaches.

3. Encouraging and resourcing sustainability debates.

THIS MEANS: Actively pursuing community education and capacity-strengthening to offer local people genuine opportunities to explore the implications of sustainability agendas and develop an interest in exploring options they might not have previously considered. Helping local people understand the implications of the discourses about sustainability and growth issues and building community capacity about options.

4. Addressing issues of cultural diversity by actively engaging culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) communities.

THIS MEANS: Finding ways to target non-English-speaking and other cultural groups and build bridges between and among cultural groups to open up a community conversation about options. This has significant resource implications in terms of translation and interpretation of all processes. Processes employed with non-English speakers must not be seen as abbreviated or lesser than processes for English-speaking community members.

5. Intergenerational participation: involving children and young people.


– Developing discrete, creative, tested and appropriate ways to engage children (up to 18 years) and young people (up to mid-twenties) and incorporating the results of those engagement processes into reports. This will require a deep understanding of evidence-based research on effective engagement with children and young people.

– Helping adults understand the wisdom of children and young people and ensuring that their contributions are treated with respect are key considerations.

6. Governance and influence: ensure that community engagement outcomes are actually fed into planning and design processes and that participants can track voice and influence.

THIS MEANS: An integrated processes that clearly indicates when and how community information and opinions will be taken into account to influence decisions at key target dates and deadlines. Feedback loops and governance structures established so that community members can see how their views are being taken into account and track their influence and voice.

7. Representativeness and tracking of community engagement activities and successes.

THIS MEANS: Ensuring that participants are representative of the wider community; developing and using deliberative democracy and other emerging processes that enhance representativeness; regular monitoring of representativeness issues and including ways to increase representativeness.

8. Relationships between and among various advisory groups, servicing and governance structures.

THIS MEANS: Developing clear draft terms of reference for each advisory group, including draft working protocols, assisting groups in refining these terms of reference and protocols and establishing clear reporting and liaison relationships between those groups and the project management, the ongoing community engagement strategy, as well as between those groups.

9. Tempo: managing timing, delays and budget implications.

THIS MEANS: Finding ways to maintain community interest and involvement over a long period, perhaps by tying processes to established community events and activities. Whatever processes are used to maintain pace and tempo, they must not smack of “tokenism” and must be related to real target dates and deliverables.

10. Evaluation proposals for community engagement.

THIS MEANS: Creation and maintenance of clear evaluation frameworks for the community engagement. In particular:

– Regular summaries of evaluation outcomes to enable ongoing feedback and monitoring (formative evaluation); and

– Clear processes for responding to the results of evaluation processes (summative evaluation).

Born in mid-winter in a freezing mining town in northern Canada, Wendy Sarkissian had the good sense – or good fortune — at 25, to migrate to Australia. Having spent almost all of her working life in Australia, she is a planner who specializes in social planning, housing density and community engagement. She has coauthored three new books: Kitchen Table Sustainability: Practical Recipes for Community Engagement with Sustainability, SpeakOut, and Creative Community Planning. She is also co-author of an award-winning book on medium-density housing design, Housing as if People Mattered: Illustrated Site-Design Guidelines for Medium-Density Family Housing. Wendy holds a doctorate in environmental ethics from Murdoch University and a Masters of Town Planning from Adelaide University. She is a Life Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia and an Adjunct Professor at Bond University’s School of Sustainable Development. An exhausted but nevertheless enthusiastic owner-builder, Wendy lives with her husband in an eco-village in Nimbin. She is currently writing a novel about a developer in Vancouver who accidentally becomes the owner of a piece of flood-prone coastal land with warring neighbours, native land claims and complex politics.

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