Influence and Community Engagement

By Wendy Sarkissian PhD LFPIA


As part of Global Community Engagement Day, to be held on Sunday 28 January 2018, Wendy Sarkissian has set the theme for our Blogging Challenge to be "Influence".  In this post, Wendy shares with us some of her recent thinking on this topic. 

A powerful new book from the United States by Roz Lasker and John Guidry (2009), Engaging the Community in Decision Making: Case Studies Tracking Participation, Voice and Influence, tackles this issue with regard to community engagement. The alarmingly ‘big finding’ is that, in spite of good intentions, ideas of marginalised and ordinary residents are far less likely to be influential than those of people with more clout, resources, or acknowledged expertise. The research shows without question what most principled community planners in Australia have known for decades: influence matters and marginalised people rarely have influence. 

The book addresses the critical question of ‘influence’: to what extent do community engagement processes actually deliver results, empower people and make a difference in their lives? And is there a relationship between what people said and what is finally delivered? This is the perennial question in community engagement and one that most practitioners rarely can answer in positive terms. So often we engage in what Kem Lowry and his colleagues call ‘participating the public’ (Lowry et al., 1997). Our processes can be manipulative. Loud voices can dominate. Soft voices are not always heard. And nothing really changes.

Avoiding the common pitfall of comparing community engagement to sport or war (which they often closely resemble), the authors instead select the analogy of a track meet (and the baton passing in a relay race) to explain their concept of the ‘pathway of ideas’. The ‘pathway to influence’ has four steps: the opportunity to participate, expression of ideas, communication of ideas and use of ideas (influence). 

The limitations of community engagement field are well known. Generally, it lacks direct methods to determine whose voices are influential in participatory processes. There is limited understanding of how participatory processes enable voices of excluded groups to be influential and limited evidence about effectiveness of community engagement processes. The research literature emphasizes repeatedly that ordinary and marginalised residents have the most accurate and direct knowledge of their own concerns, needs and values. They know intimately the particularities of their contexts. Yet their voices lack influence. The negative consequences of restricting people’s voices are far-reaching, including negative consequences for the public. Not listening prevents good ideas from being heard and enables damaging ideas to gain adherents because others cannot oppose them with better alternatives. 

Compelling reasons for engagement of marginalised groups

Some compelling reasons for engagement of marginalised or excluded groups include the following:

- Address inequalities and injustices in society by getting issues that matter on agendas;
- Address issues in ways that work for them;
- Provide experts and decision makers with additional knowledge they need to develop more legitimate plans, programs and policies; and
- Promote progress in a health democracy through entry and exchange of ideas.

In an analysis of five cases, 1025 documents and 130 interviews and group discussions, the researchers asked:

- Whose ideas were influential?
- What were the factors that determined potential for different players’ ideas to be influential?
- How were influential and not influential ideas related to what was ultimately accomplished in each case? 

The researchers asked the following three questions:

- Who had a voice?
- Who had an influential voice?
- Did the pattern of influence matter?

They found that potentially missing ideas could be attributed to people with relevant connections not having opportunities to participate. Alternatively, they did not contribute their ideas during the opportunities they had. 

How to enhance voice and influence

They identified several ways to enhance voice and influence:

- Change who is involved in opportunities;
- Change the kinds of opportunities available;
- Change the conditions of those opportunities; and
- Change the relationships among opportunities.

Thinking about community engagement for these groups involves four sorts of changes:

- FROM involving TO … giving influence;
- FROM seeking to speak in one voice TO … listening to many voices;
- FROM making assumptions TO … hearing the ideas directly; and
- FROM influence at the margins TO … influence that counts.

The authors identify four steps to increase the influence of marginalised people:

- Changes in opportunities to participate;
- Changes in expression of ideas;
- Changes in communication of ideas; and
- Changes in how ideas are used. 


A fascinating part of the research involved addressing the question of who is considered knowledgeable. Some people with crucial knowledge and people who are the focus of social actions may not be considered to be knowledgeable at all. Clout was a major issue. Even within a community, in processes organized by the community, the people who are considered to be knowledgeable tend to be those with clout, resources, or formal education and training in the particular areas the process is focusing on. Generally not valued were ideas of the people the community is trying to help through social action (they were often not considered to be of value). 

The big barrier

Gatekeepers’ frames of reference were found to be the greatest barrier to influence by marginalised people. People involved in developing social actions have ideas and knowledge of their own and they see their work in a particular frame of reference. People who are the focus of their actions see things differently from how these experts do which is why their knowledge is so valuable. It complements expert knowledge and compensates for what experts don’t know. Other knowledge is likely to fall by the wayside. In fact, most other knowledge and ideas that people contribute go by the wayside. 

Insights and findings

Some of their insights and findings are also worth restating:

- The careful recording and reporting of ideas supported difficult and controversial actions to address issues that mattered a lot to marginalised residents;
- The lack of clarity or specificity in the communication of ideas created serious problems in some cases;
- The use of ideas from marginalized and ordinary residents depended on the alignment of their ideas with the ideas of other players; and
- The use of ideas from people with acknowledged expertise was not always helpful.

Findings: experts need to change

The researchers found that experts need to change. To use local knowledge, they would need to reassess and change what they were initially planning to do. And change is not something that comes easily. Most experts like to do what they planned all along. The research revealed that local knowledge that is most likely to be influential in these processes if the knowledge that is most closely aligned with what organisers or experts were already planning to do.

Cost-benefit analysis

Cost-benefit analysis (CBA), sometimes called benefit–cost analysis (BCA), is a common consequentialist ethical technique used by planners. It is strongly influenced by consequentialist ethical origins. However, planners differ about its effectiveness as a tool, primarily because of the difficulty in quantifying some costs and benefits. It is often difficult to be absolutely ‘objective'. Ethical issues will often affect final estimates of costs and benefits.


Lasker, Roz Diane and John A Guidry (2009). Engaging the Community in Decision Making: Case Studies Tracking Participation, Voice and Influence. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland and Company Ltd.

Lowry, Kem, Adler, Peter and Milner, Neal (1997). ‘Participating the Public: Group Process, Politics and Planning,’ Journal of Planning, Education and Research 16:177-187.

Sarkissian, Wendy (2010) Review of Lasker, Roz Diane and John A Guidry (2009). Engaging the Community in Decision Making: Case Studies Tracking Participation, Voice and Influence, Journal of Planning Education and Research (30), September: 105-107.