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Community Engagement versus Civic Engagement versus Public Involvement

The language of “community engagement” is tricky, and can be a minefield for the uninitiated. In Australia, “community engagement” has come to dominate the lexicon. In other parts of the world, other phrases hold sway.

A couple of weeks back, during an interview with a community engagement practitioner, I asked what “engagement” meant to him, and how it differed from “participation”. His response surprised me, “as far as I’m concerned, they mean the same thing”. You just replace “engagement” with “participation” or “involvement” depending on where you are.”

There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure, ‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.

I’m not sure if this quite correct. Language is important, and we usually select specific words and phrases because of their specific contextual meaning, cultural fit, socio-cultural history and a whole range of other factors. I don’t have time here to explore the etymology of the various phrases here. But it’s worth pondering, because it is all too easy to fall into the trap of imagining that the way “we”, (you and me) use a particular phrase, is the same as the people sitting next to us on the bus, or across the table during a negotiation, or when we’re trying to design a process based on a shared understanding of desirable outcomes.

With apologies to Robert Plant and James Patrick, sometimes words have two meanings, and that can lead to all manner of confusion!

My interest, at this stage, is simply to understand a little better where the various terms are used around the world. And to get some idea of their relative popularity.

Community Engagement

First cab off the rank has to be “community engagement“. We can see that it’s use as a search term has steadily increased over the past ten years.
It is most popular in Australia, but is also fairly popular in South Africa, the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA.

Civic Engagement vs Community Engagement

When “community” is replaced with “civic” we see a dramatic shift in geospatial popularity. The USA is clearly the stronghold for the term “civic engagement”.

The use of “civic engagement” has remained stable over the past eight years. And, while it is not as popular internationally is “community engagement”, it looks like it is here to stay for the time being.

Citizen Engagement vs Community Engagement

When “citizen” is inserted instead of “community” we see a dramatic decline in usage and a dramatic shift to Canada.

Public Involvement vs Community Engagement

“Public involvement” has experienced a rapid and sustained decline in usage internationally, although it is still relatively popular in the UK.

Public Engagement vs Community Engagement

“Public engagement” is the closest international competitor to “community engagement”. It has shown a steady increase in usage over the past ten years, although the starting point was lower than “community engagement” and the rate of increase has been slightly slower. The term is particularly popular in Canada and the UK, but is also widely used in Australia and the USA.

Community Consultation vs Community Engagement

Finally, no comparison of language in this sphere would be complete without looking at “community consultation”. Old-school and clearly in sharp decline based on its use as a search term. Where once “community consultation” was the phrase of choice – twenty-five years ago it was all we talked about when I was studying natural resources at University – now it is frowned upon by the industry. “Consultation” is generally seen as “window dressing” and not taken seriously as an engagement concept. Personally, I think this is a little harsh, judgmental, unrealistic and not very pragmatic. But that’s just me!

In summary, if you’re in Australia you should use “Community Engagement” or “Public Engagement. When you’re in Canada, you’re better of using “Citizen Engagement” or “Public Engagement”. When you’re in the USA, your should generally stick with “Civic Engagement”. If you’re in the UK, it’s all about “Public Involvement”. And if you’re thinking about saying “Community Consultation”, then you probably want to be in Australia, but you still won’t be terribly popular.