1.3 Principles of effective community engagement

So, what is good community engagement practice? According to Zandvliet and Anderson, leading international experts on corporate-community relations:

Over and over, communities describe the value of process over outcome. They note the importance of both informal and formal interaction with companies. Negotiations around specific issues are viewed as only one part and not the most important part of the company-community relationship. (Zandvliet and Anderson 2009:147)

This advice is based on over a decade of collaborative learning with more than 60 companies and projects all over the world, primarily in the extractive sector. Getting it right: making corporate-community relations work, a book based on their experience, provides in-depth and rational discussion of how and why project managers can and should improve relationships with their neighbouring communities. We have extracted the following principles for effective community engagement (Zandvliet and Anderson 2009:112-117):

  1. Start consultation early
    • Do not wait until you need something or problems arise. Reluctance to engage indicates disrespect and engenders mistrust. The earlier and more often community engagement activities take place, the better the chance of developing good relationships.
  2. Focus on process more than outcomes
    • Engage purely for relationship building, not only for a purpose. Engage in informal as well as formal activities. Keep doors open for dialogue as often as possible. Relationships are not only about transactions but also about developing mutual understanding
  3. Engage with the appropriate community representatives—be inclusive
    • It is essential that genuine community leadership and a broad cross-section of community sectors are engaged in community discussions, not just the people who are easiest to deal with, perhaps because they are the most educated. Careful stakeholder identification is needed to ensure that all sectors of society are included
  4. Send appropriate company representatives
    • This may mean senior management for important meetings, technical experts for specialised subjects, personnel with decision-making power for negotiations. Community relations staff do not have to bear the representation load alone.
  5. Use suitable venues for engagement activities
    • Be prepared to attend meetings and events at community-selected venues, thereby showing respect and willingness to spend company time travelling to meetings and not always expecting community members to come to your offices.

1.3.1 Valuing informal engagement

It is important to find an appropriate balance between formal and informal engagement. Good systems and administrative processes are important, but managers need to be careful not to undervalue informal vehicles of engagement, such as talking to people at sporting events, in shopping centres and elsewhere around the community. These informal interactions encourage a greater flow of information and help build rapport with community people, which is central to building relationships of trust. For example, unless issues escalate, some community members prefer to make complaints ‘off the record’ rather than putting them in writing. If there is too much emphasis on formalisation, this informal, yet extremely valuable, feedback may be missed

1.3.2 Valuing local knowledge

While it makes inherent sense that affected people should have a say in their own development, genuinely valuing local knowledge runs counter to a common approach in the mining industry in which expert opinions are sought, consultants are brought in to advise on specific issues, and employees are expected to work in a managerial way. While good management is vitally important for operating world-class assets, expert knowledge must be balanced with community knowledge and participation when doing community development work. For instance, the mining industry is increasingly incorporating and respecting traditional ecological knowledge in undertaking environmental impact assessments (ElAs) and also in monitoring and rehabilitation work.

1.3.3 Inclusive engagement

One of the greatest challenges in community relations is in reaching people who are most vulnerable; that is, those people who are typically the most marginalised and the least vocal members of a community. Standard community engagement processes tend to gravitate to the more visible and influential players in a community—those people or groups with the greatest capacity to threaten an operation’s ability to operate. However, community development programs, if they are to be successful in strengthening vulnerable communities, must extend beyond those groups and seek to engage all sectors of the community.

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