New light shed on keys to successful community engagement

Water PlaygroundThere is no magic solution to engaging effectively with communities on water issues, with the latest research revealing the importance of an outcome-oriented approach.

University of Queensland Researcher Angela Dean co-authored the report 'Community engagement in the water sector: An outcome-focused review of different engagement approaches' published by the Cooperative Research Centre for Water Sensitive Cities.

“When we start engagement, rather than think of it as, 'this is something we need to do, how do we tick that box?' we should be thinking, 'what outcomes do we want to achieve?'” Dean said.

“Our capacity to achieve that outcome really depends on choosing the right tool and using it properly.”

Dean – along with fellow authors Kelly Fielding, Fiona Newton and Helen Ross – looked at water campaigns conducted in Australia and overseas, analysing methods and effectiveness.

The research shows that multiple approaches are required, and they must be well thought-out and targeted if they are to be effective. 

“A social media campaign is not a silver bullet – you often need someone who is experienced and who can use that social media platform every day,” Dean said.

“And a single approach is only ever going to capture a small group of people – often the thing we're worried about when we do any campaign is are we just preaching to the converted?”

The report assesses a range of common community engagement goals and then provides a list of key principles to help organisations achieve each of them.

“Rather than community engagement being a single tool that we just use all the time, it's really thinking about it as a toolbox with loads of very different tools – it's all about choosing the right tool,” Dean said.

The goals covered are raising awareness, changing behaviour, building policy support, effective consultation, effective participation and building stewardship.

The paper found face-to-face and mass media water campaigns were generally successful at increasing knowledge and improving attitudes.

“What is missing is conclusive evidence of whether these improvements can be maintained over time,” the report stated.

In terms of behaviour change programs – for example, reducing household water demand management – the report found that overall there was good evidence that a range of approaches was effective.

“Historically we've often thought that just providing information about the issue will be enough to change behaviours – like if we tell people about water scarcity they'll change their behaviour,” Dean said.

“But now there's much more recognition that we need to be more sophisticated about that … we need to address psychological issues so we can motivate them to change their behaviour.”

For complex issues, it was recommended to consider face-to-face or social mobilisation initiatives.

“We wouldn't have Christmas with our family on social media,” Dean explained.

“We'd sit down with them face-to-face because we know that's a far more intense, rewarding, sometimes stressful experience. The same thing goes with community engagement.

“So sometimes it's suitable to communicate electronically or by fliers, but if it's a really contentious issue and public opinion might make or break millions of dollars of investment, then it's worth putting in that time and building those relationships.”

The upcoming Ozwater’16 will feature speakers discussing a range of topics under the Customers & Community stream, including presentations about consumer attitudes, innovative approaches to engagement, and customer driven solutions. 

See the full program here.