Community engagement - more than just consultation

Community engagement has always been an important tool in the social housing sector. By engaging you are providing an opportunity for residents, partners, stakeholders and the local community to have an influence over the place where they live.

And social housing has so much to tell; new developments and partnerships, mergers, funding, staff awards, customer service, resident news...the list goes on.

So how is it best to engage with a community? What tools, methods and resources should be used?

The International Association for Public Participation is a good place to start. Their framework looks at five levels of engagement, which starts from simple information sharing right through to community empowerment. It would be good practice to understand what level of community engagement is needed whenever there is a need to communicate.

Establishing your needed level of engagement will give you a clear idea of whether you need to listen to and involve the community, or simply inform.

There are various methods that can be used to ensure engagement is done well; focus groups, consultation, workshops, meetings, events and using the local media to name but a few.

Social media is certainly a powerful tool not to be dismissed. However, statistics have shown that housing associations are reluctant to embrace the benefits that social media can bring.

My belief is that successful community engagement comes from knowing your audience and understanding their needs. Spend time with residents, job shadow to get a broader view, attend community events and listen.

What about your partners and stakeholders? What are their views about the community? Look for opportunities to network and engage with this important audience and let them know about what you are doing as an organisation.

Take the time to build a community engagement strategy. Participation organisation Involve recommend a formula when planning for public participation:

-       Purpose: be clear about what you seek to achieve

-       Context: what are the needs and character of the community?

-       People: who should be involved, what are their needs?

-       Method: this should be appropriate to the purpose, context and people

-       Outcome: set your goals and objectives.

Now it’s time to engage! Think about your strategy and use a variety of approaches to engage with different groups. You will probably use a mix of traditional methods such as mailing and phone calls, alongside digital tools including social media, blogs and your website.

Just remember, one size does not fit all. Every community is unique and each issue faced will require a different style and attitude.