The Centre for Appropriate Technology Ltd (CAT) operates at the nexus of people, place, and technology. CAT exists in order to be useful to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities we serve. Living in remote communities can present all manner of challenges for residents meeting their basic needs as well as their livelihood aspirations. Water, energy, housing, and telecommunications often require innovative solutions tailored to specific community circumstances. To determine the right solution, and deliver the best possible outcome requires effective community engagement, and this has been at the heart of CAT’s work since 1980.

Community engagement has become a phrase commonly used across various sectors in recent years.  Governments, business groups, public institutions and not-for-profit agencies all talk about community engagement, and it can mean a wide array of community involvement depending on the context. On one end of the spectrum engagement might be long term and relationship-driven and on the other it can be short term, and output specific. Either end of the spectrum can be done well or poorly depending on the practitioner’s understanding of the context, their skills, and their adherence or otherwise to certain guiding principles.

Much of CAT’s work sits in the middle of the spectrum and involves working with community residents to achieve a goal. Our approach to community engagement is focused on informed decision making and capacity building. We work with people in such a way that community residents:

  • are equipped with the knowledge to make informed decisions on matters that effect their lives; and
  • develop skills and experiences that enable greater self-reliance.

Effective engagement contributes to sustainable outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their communities. Sustainability is all the more critical in the context of remote service delivery where poor access makes deployment of commercial contractors for infrastructure work expensive. When capacity is embedded within communities, through effective engagement and training, a community’s long term sustainability and self-reliance is improved, and expenses to funders are reduced.

It may sound straight forward, but one early and critical step in carrying out effective engagement is to determine which members of a community it is appropriate to engage with for each particular project. It may be restricted to the traditional owner groups of a community, it may be other community leaders, or it may be at a household level, or gender-based. In the case of infrastructure projects in small homelands the entire community is often involved. The question of who to engage becomes particularly important in relation to permissions and authority. When we say ‘the community’ supports a project or has approved it, who are we referring to? Talking to the ‘wrong’ people – people who do not have the appropriate cultural authority to grant permission, for example – will see a project stumble from the outset, as residents are unlikely to buy in to a project unless they perceive its cultural integrity from the beginning.

Some of the principles guiding CAT’s engagement include:

Focus on informed decision making

We provide residents with information that helps inform choice, rather than dictating what to do. For example, in an energy efficiency education project, once we’re confident residents understand all the key parameters around what energy is, how to save it and why they may want to do so, what they then do with that information is up to them.

Value existing knowledge and tailor information

It sounds simple, but starting from where people are at, rather than assuming there is no existing knowledge can be overlooked. Establishing what residents already know and do in relation to a particular topic then provides the practitioner with the basis to build on that knowledge. Importantly it also sends a clear message to participants that their knowledge and skills are useful and valued.

Deliver information in an accessible format

We know that levels of literacy, numeracy, and ‘technacy’ vary hugely between individuals. This requires us to determine the most appropriate mode of delivery and may include use of translators (formal, paid, or informal), educational resources that are image based rather than text based, ensuring plain language is used and without jargon, etc.

Be transparent & manage expectations

Honesty and transparency about the project parameters and drivers from the outset ensures residents are equipped with the relevant information to make informed decisions within the boundaries determined by the project funders and managers. This means people are not left disappointed and disgruntled when the project cannot deliver what they expected. Being clear about timeframes is also important.

Invest in relationships and avoid rushing

Time (and money) is often the single biggest constraint on our ability to carry out effective engagement. Wherever possible, spending the time required to establish a few key relationships will pay dividends throughout the life of a project. People living in a community can act as project brokers and be invaluable to the success of a project through their local advocacy and provision of advice as to the best means of delivering a project in their community. It is important to ensure this role is paid where appropriate. 

Technology is a means to an end

A piece of technology or infrastructure has no value without utility to those in the community. It is what we can do with it, rather than the thing itself that is of value. Therefore the engagement, education and training surrounding the installation or construction of something in a community will determine its success or otherwise.

Why invest in community engagement?

  • From a community member’s perspective, good community engagement is about having the opportunity to shape a process and arrive at an outcome that meets community needs and aspirations.
  • From CAT’s perspective it’s about managing risk and feeling confident that the project will result in a sustainable & positive outcome for the community.
  • From a funders perspective, it’s about ensuring that outcomes are realised (i.e. the financial investment has been justified and productive).

Effective engagement is based on transparency from the outset, it allows for informed decision making by community members within project parameters, and ensures those parameters are understood by all parties and expectations are managed.  The best outcomes occur when engagement isn’t an add-on before or after project roll-out, but rather, is something embedded in the project design, and is integral to each stage.