Communities are living systems. Don’t try to engage them with dead strategies and plans.

Anyone who has spent time connecting with local people, perhaps as part of a ‘community engagement’, ‘consultation’ or ‘community planning’ type process, will know that ‘communities’ are not neat and tidy things. They’re messy. There’s no directory of contacts or ‘community job role’ that helps you to identify who knows or cares about what. Rather, there are lots of different networks of people, connected and interconnected through families, friendships, shared interests, the streets they live on or the sports teams they support.

These various networks are not planned or controlled. They are dynamic; changing as people join and leave, as their interest rises and wanes and as a response to changes in the environment. Whether it’s due to a service closure announcement or to local flooding, new networks can form quickly, organizing themselves effectively to get things done without the structures, systems and processes we are familiar with in public sector organisations.

This dynamic, unstructured nature of communities makes them quite different in nature from the public sector organisations seeking to engage with them. The structures and channels for connection and communication within public sector organisations, for example hour-long meetings, dissemination of documents and plans, emails etc, all generally occurring during business hours, are a poor fit with the habits and patterns of communities.

To help us think about engaging communities, and specifically, engaging with communities in order to affect change, it’s helpful to take a ‘whole systems’ perspective and think of communities as complex, adaptive, living systems. There are certain characteristics of living systems that we can see in communities. Think of the community as a whole as a bit like a flock of starlings. The ‘flock’ is function of the relationships and connections between the individuals and networks that form its component parts; the flow of energy moving through the community — in the form of the varying levels interest, activity and enthusiasm of its members — means that the community is dynamic and able to change in response to changes in the environment. This change is purposeful and dependent on the way individuals communicate and make sense of each other and the environment in which they operate. And, like a flock of starlings, although the particular shifts and movements can be unpredictable, there are underlying principles generate the shifting patterns of community activity.

Taking this systemic view of communities also means accepting that it is not possible to direct a community to effect a particular change. Yes, it’s possible to nudge, provoke, disturb or catalyse change, but you can’t just tell them what to change and expect it to happen. The tools and methods appropriate in hierarchical organizational settings — agendas, project planning, target setting, performance management etc — don’t function in a community setting.

This lack of ‘control’ can make public servants and pracitioners reluctant to genuinely engage with communities in an open dialogue, exploring possibilities for collaboration. Often they are wary of going out and talking to people, without an agenda, because it is unpredictable. People might identify things that could be better and often professionals feel that they need to defend, excuse or fix those things in response. This reluctance is totally understandable. It’s also inexcusable.

At a time when public service transformation is a necessity, not a choice, it is more important than ever to work creatively, with communities, to make best use of all our available resources to ensure that services and support provided are designed for best effect. This means stepping across the thresholds of organisations and out into the places where people live, where they work and where they gather. The focus is not on fixing what’s broken, it’s on discovering what’s possible. Engaging intentionally, with purpose, means taking a whole system perspective. It also means equipping yourself with a new set of tools and methods, ones that are more useful in a community setting.

Although systems are complex, the way we think about them doesn’t need to be complicated. There’s a lot of talk about ‘whole system transformation’, ‘systems thinking’ and ‘systems leadership’ across the public sector. It can seem quite overwhelming and intellectual. It doesn’t need to be. Our focus Is on the simple and the practical, built on the principles of systems leadership:

  • Create a positive disturbance. Get noticed
  • Begin a shared inquiry. Good questions are attractive, they provoke fresh insights and enable new connections
  • Connect the people who are ‘doing’. Nothing changes if people don’t change what they do or how they do it
  • Always connecting the system to more of itself. Builds healthy, resilient systems where people have access to one another and trust emerges