Year

2016

Degree Name

Masters by Research

Department

School of Management, Operations and Marketing

Abstract

Community engagement refers to the processes by which public authorities provide opportunities for the community to participate in and influence government decision making. Community engagement is practised in democratic governments in many countries. Legislation specifies the minimum requirements of local governments in New South Wales Australia to involve the community in decision making. Further to legal requirements, the demonstrated success of community engagement, identified benefits and increasing community expectations continue to be key motivators for government to develop and implement effective community engagement policies.

Generating community interest and participation in community engagement initiatives can be viewed as a marketing challenge, with local governments needing to communicate and promote engagement initiatives effectively, motivate community members to take action by becoming involved, and maintain their involvement. Of particular relevance is the concept of relationship marketing, the effectiveness of which relies on commitment and trust between two parties (Morgan and Hunt, 1994). Trust and commitment are essential for the positive relational exchange needed for community engagement, both of which are directly influenced by shared meaning.

Local governments often make use of theoretical frameworks to guide the development of community engagement initiatives, such as the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum. The Spectrum was developed to provide practitioners consistency in community engagement language and is the most widely used framework for community engagement by local governments in Australia. However, to this point the meaning community stakeholders assign to community engagement has not previously been identified and so the extent to which shared meaning exists between local government and community stakeholders is currently unknown. This study addresses this gap in knowledge. To do so, the following research questions were posed:
1. What meaning does local government assign to community engagement?
2. What meaning do community stakeholders assign to community
engagement?
3. To what extent does shared meaning exist?
The research was undertaken using an interpretative phenomenological approach. Indepth interviews were conducted with purposefully selected stakeholders from the Wollongong local government area, in New South Wales Australia. Wollongong City Council, the local government authority, has a community engagement focus and has been acknowledged internationally for its community engagement initiatives. The Council’s community engagement policy and practice are formulated on the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum.

Findings revealed shared meaning between Wollongong City Council and community stakeholder exists regarding aspects of community engagement such as definition, the value of community engagement and acknowledgment of challenges within the process of engaging with the community. Shared meaning did not extend to all levels of the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum. Results highlight a lack of shared meaning regarding the stages ‘inform’ and ‘involve’ on the Spectrum. In addition, findings revealed non-alignment between community stakeholders and Council in terms of understanding how decisions are made and how participation influences Council decision making.

A model is proposed based on Council and community stakeholders’ shared meaning of community engagement. The ‘Model of Community Engagement in Local Government’, moves away from a level or staged approach to recognise community stakeholder involvement as a fluid process, which may see varying involvement at different stages of the decision making process. Additionally, an illustrative tool has been developed to provide greater understanding of the decision making process within the context of local government. Findings revealed community stakeholders had limited understanding of Council’s decision making process and how their input might affect decisions. The tool aims to improve attitudes towards community engagement through building a common understanding, in turn increasing trust.

The research offers both theoretical and practical contributions. Theoretically, findings provide empirical evidence regarding the meaning community stakeholders assign to community engagement. A model for the implementation of community engagement in the context of local government is introduced and discussed. The model is developed based on shared meaning, therefore providing a foundation for effective community engagement and the implementation relationship marketing strategies. Further, to address the lack of understanding of the decision making process established by the study, a marketing tool is presented which can be used to provide greater understanding of the decision making process within the context of local government. The research contributes to understanding the relationship between marketing and community engagement within a local government context. The study highlights the potential for relationship marketing and social marketing concepts to contribute positively to the goal of effective community engagement. Practically, the findings and recommendations provide insight to local governments on how to utilise marketing strategies to engage the community in decision making processes. The findings contribute to more robust community engagement policy and guides the development of community engagement training programs. This in turn, increases the effectiveness of decision making processes and offers potential benefits for Councils, participants and the community.

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