Last week I read, Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block. It is an amazing book. When I was working on my dissertation, one of the professors on my committee would always ask, "How do you define EFFECTIVE community engagement?" For the longest time, I felt like I could recognize it when I saw it, but I could not describe it in the way academics like you to define things.
Block's book has helped me answer the question! Perhaps most importantly, effective community engagement builds social capital. In order to do this, we have to turn to different practices and structures. Public hearings that focus on problems are not the way to do it.
Rather than focusing on problems, Block suggests that we focus on possibilities. He asks the question, "What do we want to create together?" People are more likely to commit to that which they have had a hand in creating. The goal is not to generate buy in. Instead, inviting people to help develop the solution is more like to lead to commitment.
New practices need new structures if we are going to be successful. Public hearings are more likely to create heat than light. Block posits that THE SMALL GROUP, one that represents the larger system is the unit of transformation. Diverse small groups that are in conversation with the large group are the way to engage in conversations that build social capital. He sites processes like World Cafe, Open Space Technology, and Future Search as examples of effective small group/large group processes that work.
A bonus: If you don't have time to read the whole book, Block includes a "Book at a Glance" beginning on page 177 in the paperback edition.