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Article Article February 29th, 2024
Innovation • Cities

Unlocking authentic community power: Rethinking public service engagement for real impact

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Montgomery County's latest article on the crucial topic of community engagement in public service- In a world where trust in government is fractured, understanding community dynamics is key to fostering inclusion and reshaping governance. #CommunityEngagement #PublicService

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Mindsets, structures, and practices: These are the pillars of government's approach to community engagement. Shifting mindsets, reforming structures, and adopting inclusive practices are essential for meaningful transformation. #Governance #Innovation

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Genuine community engagement goes beyond town halls and surveys. It's about collaborative decision-making, shared power, and mutual respect between government and communities.

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The current state of community engagement in public service 

The bedrock of good governance in government rests upon the trust of the public. However, in many communities around the world public trust in government is fractured. In too many places, prolonged periods of community neglect, disinvestment, and structural violence are not only historical harms, but present realities that deny people prosperity, justice, and dignity. 

Pioneered by sociologist Johan Galtung, the concept of structural violence proposes that social structures that deprive individuals and groups of their potential health and wellbeing are violent.

Historically, government has not typically been the only party responsible for the conditions of exclusion. Many powerful business interests, interest groups, and individuals have significantly contributed to widespread harms. However, this article focuses on government because it still occupies a unique place in its proximity to its people that makes its decisions on inclusion and exclusion catalysts for social transformation. 

In the US, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple social movements in recent years, many local authorities have responded to the calls for inclusion and have embarked on various forms of community engagement initiatives. Some of these endeavors have been marked by glaring deficiencies, as community engagement too often devolved into a tool for public relations and crisis control. However, community engagement efforts much more commonly did not meet expectations due to a fundamentally flawed comprehension of what community engagement truly entails and the critical purpose it serves.

What is community? 

Before we turn to community engagement, it is important to make a clarification about what we mean by the word community. While community has a lot of different meanings, including a group that shares physical proximity, identity, affinity, or interest, we define community in an ecological sense in this piece. For our purposes, a community is the organic grouping of individuals, organizations, and institutions, who hold a concrete stake in a collective decision or outcome. 

To illustrate what we mean, consider the planning of a neighborhood playground installation. It is clear that neighborhood residents have a stake, but they are not alone.  Consider the people of all ages who frequent the neighborhood for school and play, the people who manage safety and maintenance, and local childcares. In many definitions of community, these other people would not be considered at all. The point of our formulation is to challenge assumptions about inclusion before we undertake the purpose of engagement. 

What is community engagement? 

The working definition of community engagement is “the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the wellbeing of those people”. Within this expansive framework exists a continuum of engagement levels, spanning from basic outreach to the establishment of integrated structures for collective decision-making and authority.

The crux of many governments' challenges lies in the narrow interpretation of community engagement. While government-led townhalls, surveys, and focus groups are crucial initial steps into the realm of community engagement, they often fall short of unlocking its full potential to reshape decision-making processes and power dynamics between governments and communities.

What is community? We consider communities to be comprised of the individuals, organizations, and institutions who hold a concrete stake in a collective decision or outcome. For example, the community involved in planning a neighborhood playground includes residents, schools, managers of safety and maintenance, childcare providers, local businesses, and more. What is community? We consider communities to be comprised of the individuals, organizations, and institutions who hold a concrete stake in a collective decision or outcome. For example, the community involved in planning a neighborhood playground includes residents, schools, managers of safety and maintenance, childcare providers, local businesses, and more.

Failing to advance towards more profound and integrated community engagement strategies only perpetuates dynamics that hinder the cultivation of community trust and partnership. These enduring dynamics encompass:

  • Government exclusively assuming the role of initiator and authority, relegating the community to a position of speaking only when addressed and solely on matters deemed significant by the government.

  • Government prioritizing its institutional interests, reducing community input to a procedural obstacle to navigate in the pursuit of pre-established governmental goals.

  • Government persistently drawing from communities without reciprocation, disregarding its duty to reinvest in the communities it calls upon in ways that are substantial and commensurate.

Given these considerations, it becomes evident that in a post-COVID world, the urgency of effective community engagement is amplified and calls for the need of a paradigm shift in our approach to this vital facet of public governance. 

Fundamentals to shift the paradigm 

The vision and promise of community engagement is more just and inclusive governance, but the transformation will remain fundamentally incomplete without government collectively reimagining and reforming its paradigm. There are three main components of government’s paradigm — mindsets, structures, and practices — that need reform to make the full implementation of community engagement viable. Otherwise, community engagement will be inherently limited in scope and effect to the confines of a paradigm with many opposing logics. 


All governments have mindsets, or a set of core assumptions and beliefs, that dictate their actions. Although they are often implicit and unexamined, these mindsets are a substantial part of the intellectual foundation for government structures, practices and culture. History shows us that structures and practices that do not align with mindsets will be challenged and undermined, so change from within government often must start with changing these beliefs.

In the US context, there are many common mindsets in government that are barriers to community engagement. A primary one is the beliefs about government’s responsibility to its people. Governments widely hold that they have an obligation to promote and safeguard the safety and wellbeing of their people. However, the implicit belief that frustrates community engagement is in the answer to the question: Who decides which people are “the people” government should serve and what government will do? Too often, the answer is the government alone.

To fully embrace community engagement, government must reframe its mindset and view itself as a partner with the community. As a partner, government must share power, decision-making authority, responsibility, and benefits with the community. Partners have an obligation to acknowledge their past harms and to commit to jointly designed decision-making modalities that protect rights and wellbeing, and ultimately break the cycle of harm. 


Community engagement requires new structures that accommodate distributed decision-making power and consensus as more people, especially from affected individuals and groups, become essential partners. This will often mean structures have to change to support an iterative process, with lots of starts and re-starts, instead of a process that is strictly timebound. 

Current government structures generally discourage iterative processes because governments are working against the clock. Governments face structural demands from the fiscal calendar and must contend with the threat of funds being reallocated or lost entirely. Governments also face the demands of political cycles, with each newly elected administration having broad ability to change priorities and end previous engagements. These forces work in ways that strongly push against the kind of extended, evolving arrangements that community engagement needs to flourish.   

New structures that elevate community as genuine partners have the potential to counteract government’s limitations. Communities are not bound by strict time exigencies like government, and there is a lot of power in the freedom to think long-term. Structures that support partnership with communities, especially when it comes to funding, have the potential to enable much more sustained and coherent efforts on community needs. Moreover, when the lens is focused on the long-term, there is time to work on root causes of complex issues in ways that governments are generally restricted from doing.


Data, root causes, and intersecting systems: Merging data with lived experiences

Establishing a robust data-informed foundation is fundamental to any transformative initiative. Before engaging communities in dialogue and collaborative design processes, government institutions must first define the issue thoroughly. This necessitates a comprehensive analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data sources to identify root causes, drivers, and interconnected systems. This level of rigorous inquiry, analysis, and research facilitate a deeper understanding of the issue's complexity, enabling institutions to formulate precise, probing questions that yield critical insights.

Analyzing relevant statistics, interpreting their implications, and recognizing meaningful patterns enables the quantification of key factors. Qualitative methodologies are also critical to holistic analysis. Ethnographic studies, interviews, and focus groups provide firsthand accounts, shedding light on how the issue impacts people's lives. Synthesizing statistical data and lived experiences reveals how societal elements converge to create local manifestations. Tracing causal pathways across different domains generates insights crucial for targeted solutions.

This approach emphasizes the role of data and systems analysis in addressing power imbalances by empowering both communities and government entities with insights necessary for genuine engagement. Employing a systems thinking framework equips us with the tools to acknowledge interconnectedness, offering a pathway to tackle inequities.

Once there has been an intentional investment in the aforementioned domains, government is able to curate spaces that foster truly meaningful dialogue between communities and institutions, offering a mechanism for radical listening, collective sensemaking, and co-design. Ongoing listening sessions and dialogue are critical to vetting the integrity of findings and root cause analysis, which require ongoing validation against community perspectives and lived experiences in the context of ever shifting social political landscapes. These sessions offer a gateway, amplifying voices of those directly affected. Their insights must inform the process, so data resonates with realities on the ground.

Building and creating with communities: Core principles and key components 

As highlighted by the Earning Trust to Build Equitable and Healthy Socities (ET4HS) program, in any effective community engagement framework, sensemaking and co-creation are the linchpins. As community insights develop, they aid in interpreting findings, contextualizing data, and shaping suitable responses. Iterative engagement ensures research aligns with community priorities, narratives, and evolving collaborative interpretations. This is why fruitful listening demands open, ongoing dialogue, not one-off events. Below is a more in depth look at these essential linchpins and other critical components and principles of effective community engagement:

  • Healing, truth, and transformation: It is only when government develops a self-awareness of its current and past harm, that it can then adequately invite communities into a transformative justice process. Adopting principles and approaches from a transformative justice framework is critical to undoing historical harms to communities by way of structurally violent practices. Unlike restorative justice that seeks to restore victims' pre-harm status, transformative justice questions whether existing conditions were equitable to begin with. It looks beyond individual harms to address systemic inequities enabling abuse, marginalization, and violence. Transformative justice aims to fundamentally transform societal structures, shifting power dynamics, and redressing root causes perpetuating harms within communities. The goal is not returning to, but moving beyond the status quo through material, social, and political change. It means transitioning from reactive to proactive - from restoring to reimagining – in order to build community capacity to shape the conditions, relationships, and systems that uplift their dignity, agency, and collective wellbeing.

  • Sensemaking serves as the crucial bridge between data and action, synthesizing varied perspectives to convert raw information into actionable insights that navigate communities through complexity. Central to this process is the recognition of diverse stakeholder interpretations and the proactive effort to bridge communication gaps, fostering an inclusive dialogue. Sensemaking thrives on grounding practices rooted in shared definitions and a collective aspiration for understanding. Establishing this common ground not only fosters cohesion, but also propels the transformation of raw data into insights that resonate with and guide diverse communities through the intricacies of collective decision-making.

  • Co-creation invites communities to help shape decisions affecting them. This cedes authority to residents while obligating institutions to partner in redressing past harms as they seek input on future directions. The path forward entails frank reckonings with historic wrongs, coupled with investments in material resources, and realignment of power structures and decision-making modalities. This participatory approach ensures that solutions are not imposed, but are born from the collective wisdom of the community. Only then can authentic engagement emerge, with communities guiding just policies designed to serve their interests rather than systems. This is why co-creation is an ongoing effort that ebbs and flows between sensemaking as new information is uncovered and different perspectives are shared. It is a long-term process that can also serve as a springboard to evaluate current and proposed approaches. It is an invitation into a relationship.


To forge a meaningful bond between government and community, a vital prerequisite lies in government's dedicated investment in the elements outlined above. Only then can the stage be set for an ongoing dialogue, a symphony of listening, sense-making, and co-design. This dynamic foundation becomes the crucible in which trust is repaired, power dynamics are reshaped, and sustainable solutions germinate, ones that strike at the heart of social issues without sowing seeds of harm.

Central to this process is a transparent delineation of who comprises the participatory fabric. This ensures that every voice finds its resonance, its place in shaping the collective narrative.

Yet, this endeavor demands more than intention—it requires action. A commitment to the bedrock of community engagement necessitates investment. Competency must be honed with skills and knowledge woven into the very fabric of the organization's human capital. Simultaneously, a financial commitment must be made, channeling resources towards the infrastructure and expertise indispensable for the effective execution of community engagement. It is in this fusion of investment and intention that the seeds of genuine partnership can truly blossom and the fruits of collective progress can be harvested.

The Earning Trust to Build Equitable and Healthy Societies (ET4HS) program is a dedicated initiative that addresses health disparities while increasing government legitimacy in local communities. Through an international network, participating cities and counties learn and source innovative solutions for health equity challenges, gaining access to proven approaches tailored to their context. The program fosters relationships between the government and the community, laying the foundation for more effective governance. Teams receive valuable resources, including workshops, community engagement exercises, and expert insights, to positively impact health outcomes.

At the core of ET4HS is the concept of "earned legitimacy," recognizing that a government's credibility depends on trust and support from its people. By addressing complex social factors and systemic barriers that lead to disparities, local governments rebuild trust with affected communities, creating equitable and healthier societies for all.

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