Citizen engagement operates with a lot of fancy titles like consumer education, consumer protection, client-centered services, outreach, or prevention and preparedness. In a prior life as an independent consultant, it was called community-based participatory research, and in my current role it is dubbed Community Engagement. (I must note, “citizen” explicitly denotes a legal status that does not apply to everyone in the community, and generally engagement work leans toward inclusiveness.)
Citizen/community engagement can take many forms depending on the program area it is aligned with, and therefore it can seem amorphous. Different names for different nuances, but let’s be clear about what they all have in common: communications. While not all government agencies or programs have something called community engagement, they all have a communications department. Conventional wisdom would argue that communications is a natural partner of, and umbrella for, community engagement, afterall, aren’t we working to build a more informed electorate? Isn’t our work dependent on the dissemination of information?
Yes, and with perspective of privilege, we neglect our responsibility to engage in mutual dialogue that informs our decision-making processes. When we presume that media will disseminate information to the masses, we over-esteem a system that is not created to enhance governance processes but to react to them, in effect limiting how and when information goes out and to whom is it accessible (keeping in mind multi-lingual dialogue).
When community engagement is centralized, usually in either communications or the executive office, it tends to be aimed toward media relations (read: photo ops and press releases) to show that our government officials care what common folks think. Communications has a brand, an official reputation it must uphold. Communications is built to create and control (as much as possible) the message. So, no, not really working to build a more informed electorate or disseminate information.
But, you may argue, that not all communications is done through the media. So long as they adhere to some branding guidelines, different divisions can sometimes put out information without the eagle eye review of the communications department. These divisions regularly interact with identifiable stakeholder groups and do exchange information. Of course, there is the challenge of who is defined as the community and identified as key representatives of the broader pool. Engagement through existing relationships and identifiable audiences such as grantees, industry, and interest groups has its own problems. These perspectives have a clear self-interest in processes and policies and are more than happy to corner the market on exchanging information.
This leads us to cast the net widely, no identifiable stakeholders, just anyone who signs up for any number of list serves. The community is responsible for its own engagement; mutual dialogue is everyone’s responsibility – and likely to end up as no one’s priority. Enter stage right: community engagement professionals. We have a grassroots record of getting things done on a shoestring budget (e.g. community forums in renovated school gyms with no air conditioning). In the professional hierarchy, working with under-resourced groups, community engagement professionals can be similarly undervalued (see event planners with hotel conference budgets).
Community engagement professionals are a mixed bag of resourcefulness, born of diverse fields and community experiences. Many community engagement professionals I know are people of color, women, individuals that have learned self and community advocacy by constantly being asked either intentionally or unintentionally to be the voice of an entire demographic. The good ones are compelled to include multiple perspectives by inviting others to the tables we are a privileged to be a part of. The not-so-good ones succumb to peer and professional pressure and become gatekeepers, inviting some and excluding others. With so much knowledge among our ranks, engaging new perspectives can be mistaken as “dumbing down” our deep expertize. If community engagement professionals bring in external perspectives, they run the risk of being seen as an outsider, or not a team player – or worse, as playing for the wrong team.
So where does that leave community engagement on our organizational charts? It takes leadership from the top executive office, infrastructural support from the communications department, and integration across program functions.
This is the double-edged sword of being a connector, a bridge from policy to practice. We have unique experiences and perspectives and from this vantage point, we know that the work is not to educate the electorate with our finite information. Our work is to link both, strengthen both. So that when we are successful, power is reframed and redistributed. Community engagement is a process, and our contributions to influence outcomes are understated and more often unacknowledged.
So how do we cope with organizational cultural and structural barriers? How do we build on the simple win that our agencies have the wisdom to hire us? The simple answer is that because of our grassroots resourcefulness, community engagement professionals do what we must, organize ourselves to do what we can, and before you know it, we are doing the impossible.
In community engagement, it helps to build easy pathways for those on both sides to cross the bridge we are building. And even though our positions may change and agencies can restructure us from one department to the next, when we’ve built enough bridges, we do see new positions being created, new departments being resourced and integrated. Unfortunately for many community engagement professionals, these institutional leadership positions continue to be out of reach for us because of our core work is to empower others to take that step toward each other.
Sometimes I forget why the caged bird sings. But we have to celebrate the small wins and the silver lining when we have chosen to be part of the system and solution we are trying to fix.