4 myths about community engagement

Democratic engagement can be messy work, but it’s worth the effort in the long run.

Daniel Bennett

At times, democratic engagement can be maddening. As Winston Churchill famously quipped: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The arduous work of consensus building and inevitable dissent when the masses are involved can be frustrating. 

In my years as a community planner, I’ve come across many community engagement skeptics. Lured by dreams of “sidetrack-free” meetings and the balm of like-mindedness, some are tempted to abandon the process of engagement and go it alone with a small group that just “gets it.” 

While I sympathize with the community engagement skeptic’s frustration, I think the appeal of “going it alone” is supported by myths, that in the long term, will prove to be busted. 

Here are four myths about community engagement I often hear. See if you’ve heard (or even believe) some of these and I’ll do my best to bust them one by one.

Myth 1: Engagement is too inefficient 

Bringing in more perspectives and opinions can be messy, but not engaging the broader community carries its own risk of inefficiency. The marginal amount of time saved during the planning of a project can quickly be lost later on to repeat meetings (“Let’s table this…”), rehashing misunderstandings, and delays in implementation. 

Those who put off engaging their neighbors early in the project may very well be forced to deal with their angry neighbors later on. When surfaced early, differing opinions can supplement the project or be addressed in a way that builds trust and understanding. When surfaced for the first time at a public hearing late in the process, these opinions can often create mistrust and threaten to derail the project entirely.  

Engagement throughout the early stages of a project also builds a deep bench to help with implementation. Community-based projects likely require a broad base of stakeholders and support to be implemented. Building this base of support and understanding through engagement helps ensure things keep moving forward even when the initial volunteers move on or burn out.

Myth 2: Engagement is too costly

Money saved by not doing outreach and hosting engagement activities early on may later be spent in future meetings and “panic outreach” to gain buy-in and quell concerns. But there are other hidden costs of not engaging the community.

Revisions cost more than shared visions. Developing a shared vision with all partners ensures you will build something everyone will support. Especially when working with consultants, engineers, or other professionals, revisions to a final product can be far costlier than quality engagement upfront.

People contribute to projects they believe in. If fundraising or local donations may be important to your project, consider outreach as prospecting for potential donors. Early involvement will build understanding and ownership among community members, and help bring all kinds of talents and gifts to the process. 

Projects with demonstrated support win grants. If a project you’re working on will require funds from external sources, funders often look for community support when making funding decisions. Authentic engagement and documented community support make projects a safer investment for funders, therefore making them more competitive against other projects that didn’t do the outreach. 

Myth 3: We already know what people are going to say

No matter how well you know your community, it’s impossible to know every perspective. The “everyone knows everyone” assumption in small towns, especially, can give leaders a false sense of knowing everything there is to be known. Usually, we only know the perspectives of the people with whom we are most connected. On multiple occasions, I’ve facilitated meetings in towns of 300 to 500 people where long-time residents were stunned to see people at the meeting whom they’d never met.

If it can happen in a town of 300, we should have some humility in our community understanding anywhere. There are always new people to wrap in, and nothing can replace the input and detail of someone sharing their own experience. 

Myth 4: Everyone who wants to be is already involved

There are several reasons – social, physical, time-related – that might prevent someone from participating in meetings and engagement. Work, youth sports, discomfort with crowds, long distances, and lack of transportation might prevent someone from participating in an evening “town hall” meeting. You also wouldn’t believe how many people (including youth) may want to be involved, but just haven’t been asked.

Making the invitation to numerous groups and networks in the community, and offering multiple times, places, and ways to be involved, helps us try to catch as many people who want to be engaged as possible. 

Democratic engagement can be messy work, but it’s worth the effort in the long run. Trust is efficient. Ownership drives generosity. Humility uncovers fresh perspectives. New contributions will be offered if residents are asked to contribute in new ways. 

It takes a bit of faith to anchor your project on the wisdom and will of the masses. It takes at least equal measures of creativity and dedication to line up the logistics that democratic engagement demands in practice. We believe, however, that the payoff on the other side of trust and engagement is true community. To strive to see true community reflected in local decision-making is a goal worthy of our efforts and yes, even our occasional frustrations. 

Daniel Bennett is Civic Nebraska’s rural civic health program manager.

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