Community engagement is dead

All things come and go and especially in the world of professional helping (otherwise known as “consulting”). I’ve been around the world of enghagement and consultation long enough that I have seen various names for this work: focus groups, advisory groups, public participation, consultation and now community engagement.

Mostlyover all those years, my practice and the practice of the field in general has gone from monolithic broadcasting of ideas to “tell and sell” consultation to much more complex dialogue based work. And now I think I and we are coming to a more seismic shift in how community is engaged. Since the dawn of the social web, citizens and stakeholders have been able to access as much or more information than proponents of engagement projects. It is wise when planning these kinds of things to assume now that your audience and your advisors know more than you do. it was always the case but now it is much more evident.

And so it is occurring to me, after working with some boundary pushers on this stuff that we are at the point where the term “community engagement” is now redundant. If you have community, you don’t need to do engagement. And if you have engagement, you have community.

My friend Tim Merry has taken to saying that we can’t do community engagement we can only do community. Or not. I think this is a compelling idea. Engagement is meaningless now as a term. We are seeking real community, a genuine sense of being in this together. Whether it is public policy or building infrastructure you have the choice to do it to people or do it with people. Just using the word “engagement” is not enough.

Time to put real power behind the idea of community.


  1. Interesting Chris. I write this not from the perspective of a religious person or as an evangelist; rather, as an historical observation.

    At least in a Western context, have we ever had community separate from a shared dogma, and that dogma being formal religion? I think of my Dad’s Regina …. There were conflicts between neighbourhoods and citizens constantly as there are now around many of the same issues that create tension today; yet he and his contemporaries found community and defined themselves in terms of their religion. Community was created through the church, whether it was Catholic, Anglican or Jewish. While not as familiar as you are with First Nations communities, I imagine it is similar; a shared belief within the community around the nature of creation and their place in it, communicated down through generations as dogma by elders.

    As we leave religion behind and move to a secular, relativist society (and I am fully aware of the harmful nature of what has been and is done under the guide of dogma and doctrine) it seems to me that people who search for community will continue to have a difficult time. What becomes the replacement for shared doctrine that holds people together? In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? I don’t think so. Communities are not galvanized by laws, or reason for that matter. Absent of a shared doctrine, we remain exposed to the sand and grit of relativism creating friction within even the smallest of places (like Bowen) — places where individuals and small group assume their view of the world is shared by their neighbours, when many times it is not.

    Finally, and said more succinctly: maybe we had community in religion, and we’ve been searching for its replacement ever since we turned our backs on it. Just a thought.

  2. Chris,

    This if very interesting to me. I’m part of a ‘Community Association’ that was started 18 months ago. We are trying to ‘educate…encourage…engage’ people in our small town in the Arts. We happen to be housed in the old movie theatre. It is very much right in the middle of downtown.
    I’ve lived here for 20 years, however, I live outside of town. Recently I spent 2 hours every weekday for a month, writing at the theatre. The front windows are large and encompass the whole of the street front. Let’s just say I had a front row seat to the town.
    It was during this time I realized why we are having such a struggle to keep the doors open. Our town has no community spirit. Or rather, those that do are slowly, but surely, being drained of it.
    I’ve come to define community spirit as ‘someone who attends or supports an event or function without any direct benefit to themselves’.
    I find it interesting that over the course of 18 months, people still come through our doors and say, “I didn’t even know we had a theatre!” They’re here for a specific event that is important to them.
    One very obvious time was when I got the Hunger Games in. The teens came. I haven’t seen them since.
    Is it because everything is available all the time, with a click of a button, that people have somehow forgotten actual reality needs actual bodies to function and thrive?
    Social media, the Internet, chatrooms, games, etc on the computer or TV have honed the ‘I am my own universe’ mentality.
    It’s hard to build community with that mindset.

  3. Chris,

    Consultants are hardly the only professional helpers. what about the all the other service professions? Doctors? Teachers? Parliamentarians? Development professionals? The helping professions extend way way beyond consultancy.


  4. Yup. And this post is relevant to them too. I think as long as you are working with people “othering” them isn’t helpful.

  5. I was once in a remote community in the west coast of Vancouver Island with some myriad of social and economic challenges. I asked an Elder for his opinion on one thing he could do to address the community’s problems as he replied “get rid of the satellite tv”.

  6. I found this to be an excellent post because of the discussion potential. So much to explore. Hope you don’t mind, but I’ve linked it to my Facebook page. I’d love to know more. I’m not really sure of your motivation behind this article.

  7. Chris
    I love this post. Timely and essential thinking. Moving beyond linear concepts and even the more recent more complex ones to the bones of the matter. It is all about people, connection, relationships, the innate capacity within the systems we all belong to of being. And even more being an integral part of community and the multiple levels (spirit, physical, etc) that takes place when community exists.


  8. @MommaYomma…my motivation is to open us up to some new ways of thinking about the people we are dealing with in the world. Mostly I think “community engagement” engenders a separateness that actually undermines community. Trying to get at that.

  9. hey chris, this post is so similar to what i was thinking one morning last week that i had to come back and check the date here. i was sure that it was you who must have set me off thinking about this in the first place.

    so i was thinking along similar lines… questioning plans for community engagement, thinking community should be leading and the planners following… and then i made a leap to community awareness, reminding myself of my favorite francisco varela quote: if a living system is unhealthy, the way to make it more healthy is to reconnect it with more of itself.

    is this the challenge now? community reconnecting with more of itself? more aware of more of itself? your oslist bit about banks belongs here, too, i think, if it’s not already. dare we shift like this… and is it a weight-shift, foot-change, or is it balancing, both/and, mutuality? if the latter, awareness is big enough to include that too, no?

  10. reminding me of map and territory story, too. are you saying chuck the map and get to know the territory directly now?

  11. yes michael to all of what you’re saying. and i think the map helped me find this territory and the territory is really where we always need to be. and perhaps you are finding this now more, with the neighbourhood work you’ve been in the past few years…verela has always been right.