What level of influence can communities have in decision making?

As you’ll see from my website I am a member of Engage 2 Act, which is a national collective of individuals committed to progressing high quality community engagement practice.

Thanks to this group Community Engagement practitioners now have their own “national day” being held for the first time on 28 January 2018, which has been declared as Global Community Engagement Day.

As part of this event, Engage 2 Act has issued a challenge for practitioners to talk about ‘influence’ and its role in community engagement or specifically “to what extent do community engagement processes actually deliver results, empower people and make a difference in their lives?”

As wisely pointed out by Wendy Sarkissian “(t)he ‘pathway to influence’ has four steps: the opportunity to participate, expression of ideas, communication of ideas and use of ideas (influence),” and this is where I’d like to begin expressing my thoughts.

Community engagement means different things to different people, so to make it clear, here I’m talking about “the process of working collaboratively with community (and other) groups to address issues that impact the well-being of those groups” (lexicon.ft.com) also referred to as public participation or consultation.

Community engagement practitioners use a range of models to conduct these processes, and within that act according to a number of principles, or values. Personally I have adopted the Core Values as laid out by the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2 for short) and obviously the key value for this topic is number 2 – “Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.”

Where the debate comes in is about the level of influence there will be on any decision and I know from experience that this is a very important thing to understand from the beginning of any engagement process.

Fortunately IAP2 has developed a Public Participation Spectrum to help identify the level of influence – you can download it here – but in summary it is: Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate and Empower (ICICE for short). The higher in the spectrum (Inform being the lowest, Empower being the highest) means the more influence is given to decision making. Simple right?

Well it is simple, but getting it right is not always that easy. In my experience asking the question “How much influence will the community have over this decision?” really helps. So does “Well has the decision already been made, or are you willing to change following hearing from the community/stakeholder(s)?”.

Establishing the level of influence from the outset is so important as it is one of the first things you need to make clear in any engagement process. There is nothing worse than putting something out for consultation and giving the wrong idea about what impact the community/stakeholder(s) will have on the final decision or design.

Communicating the level of influence at the start of any consultation is essential so that you are making it clear i.e. this is how and why you have been asked to contribute and this is how we will use your input. It is also important to reiterate this at the completion of any engagement process and once the final decision has been made. The community and stakeholder(s) will be so much happier at the end if you have laid this out.

Influence can also mean how much say individual groups or stakeholders will have on decisions, but I won’t cover that here, I think Wendy Sarkissian has covered that quite nicely (see the link below). However, again, it is another important element to consider at the design stage and ensure that it is effectively communicated at the beginning of any engagement process.


Read more of Wendy Sarkissian’s thoughts at https://www.engage2act.org/blog-holding/2018/1/16/influence-and-community-engagement