What does engagement mean to you? We asked that a while ago and continue to ask because it seems that there are so many different interpretations. The dictionary definitions are not a lot of help. It’s one of those words that needs context and perspective.
The standard dictionary definition defines engagement in three contexts; marriage, war and employment. In marriage an engagement indicates a promise or commitment to commit. In war it means to be actively in battle and in employment or business it means a time limited business arrangement. None of these really describe what we intend when we talk about engagement at the community level. Linda Deneen, in an article about student engagement for EDUCASE Quarterly found this now obsolete definition - “the fact of being entangled; involved or entangled conditions. Obs.”
Snappy Words, a free visual online dictionary, provided this visual of the meaning of the word, stretching the definition to include the idea of a group process involving participation. If we take a closer look we see this. Participation, involvement and involution. Involution means being involved in something complicated or complex. Moving into a civic realm, I found this in Learning to Engage – Experiences with civic engagement in Canada.
For the purposes of this report, the term “citizen engagement” refers to processes where governments have taken the initiative to involve citizens in policy development and the clarification of values, principles and desired outcomes. Citizen engagement differs from more traditional forms of consultation by encouraging reflection and learning, promoting a focus on common ground, assuming that citizens will add value, allowing new options will emerge, and taking the time necessary.
This definition adds the ideas of values, principles and outcomes along with reflection, learning and finding common ground. This definition moves toward dialogue and I think it’s closer to what we mean what we talk about engagement. It makes the critical distinction between consultation and engagement. You can’t really explore the differences between consultation and engagement without a big nod to Sherry Arnstein who wrote A Ladder of Citizen Participation way back in 1969. Her distinctions between consultation and engagement have framed the conversation ever since. The Ladder of Participation has been used as the basic building block to create continuums of community engagement across many disciplines. Education, not for profit’s, marketing and big business are now more than ever concerned with engagement. Rob Engell offers this menu based on Sherry Arnstein’s original saying that,
The draw back of the “ladder” is an implied hierarchy but that is not the case – the important thing is to be clear about what you are trying to achieve with both yourself and those you are involving. Different ‘types’ are appropriate at different times and in different situations.
All of these models and definitions help frame engagement. When it comes to community engagement specifically, it’s hard to find a better description than the one from the folks at Tamarack.
People working collaboratively, through inspired action and learning, to create and realize bold visions for their common future.
Their list of criteria seems to capture all the elements most important in engaging community.
- A broad range of people are participating and are engaged
- People are trying to solve complex issues
- The engagement process creates vision, achieves results, creates movement and/or change
- Different sectors are included in the process
- There is a focus on collaboration and social inclusion
- The community determines local priorities
- There is a balance between community engagement processes and creating action
Like Tamarack, one of the things I wonder about, a lot, is the balancing of process and outcome. A definition is an outcome, an end result. Here at ThoughtStream we try to balance our focus between both.
The process of collectively defining what engagement means to you and your people is probably just as important than the actual outcome of having a clear definition. ThoughtStream is a great platform to hold that process and provides the opportunity to co-create an outcome, in this case a definition.
Here’s your chance to try ThoughtStream, as a participant. Click the link below, enter your email address and participate in a ThoughtStream that asks two questions. Your email address with not be shared or used other than to send you the invitation to participate.
1. How do you define engagement?
2. How do you “know” when you are part of an engaged community?
Next week we’ll share all of the ideas and feature some of the definitions in a special edition of our blog.