Empirical Evidence from the WRATD Case
Role and Relationship of Community Engagement using two Theories
Community engagement concerns the methods that enhance the robustness of public debate. In this paper two theories shall be used to provide a theoretical framework for in discussing the role and relationship of community engagement. In society today, governments and corporations as whole or through their agencies have a considerable influence on public opinion. It offers a mechanism of community mobilization to formulate and effect desirable changes or prevent undesirable changes in the society (Paulin (ed.) 2006).
As people engage, goals are formulated; however such goals cannot be universal for all societies. As such, the view of community engagement for a given society is analysed on the basis of its uniqueness in the approach to community engagement. It would be futile to try to fit the mechanisms employed by a particular society into the existing social, ecological and economic framework that are otherwise obsolete or on their way to obsoleteness and incompatible. The concept of sustainable development hinges on community development. As a development approach community engagement faces challenges of coordination and funding. The scarcity of funds has dictated the community practitioners to focus on the key themes of place of engagement, the process that communities use to achieve their objectives and how they are affected by other policies of corporations and governments. Other themes are participation and empowerment (Demetrious 2008).
The relationship of community engagement is better understood using the democratic theory because it mimics collective participation by individuals in a society to realize change or protect their interests. The democratic theory has several conceptions reflective of the changing public and scholarly opinion. The initial understanding of the democratic theory was as participatory or direct engagement. In consideration of the challenges of community engagement outlined above, the huge population today makes the practice of direct democracy very daunting. The representative democracy concept solves this predicament by creating a governance system that is directed by few individuals who are appointed or elected to governing institutions. The decision-making process practice in the governing institutions then affects the rest of the society. Most government in the world are run using the representative democratic system. The representative democracy dictates that individuals have to be in the governing institutions to participate directly in the decision-making process otherwise, they are left at the mercy of the interpretation and zeal of their representatives to articulate their opinions during the decision making process (Gastil & Levine 2005).
Another conception of the democratic theory is the deliberative democracy that is today taking shape as the preferable means of decision-making in governments, non-governmental organizations, community groups and corporations as they face challenges such as capacity building. In deliberative democracy theory, communication and the rule by many are the basis of the decision-making process. In this form, everybody is a stakeholder whether as an individual or a unit in the sustainability of the community.
As stakeholders, individual have are entitled to participate in society. The right and obligation to participate is reflected in the citizenship theory. The entitlement however is subject to the qualification of the individual or the group as a member of the given society. Deliberative democracy is suitable for public communication whose aim is to pass on enlightenments for the benefit of the sustainability of the whole society rather than to communicate the goals of a company. The overlying aim of the decision-making process in deliberative democracy has to be on the achievement of a common plan or lead to the attainment of a common good.
Users of community engagement methods employ the methods in the democratic and citizenship theories in the attainment of common public goals. Such public relations engagements form the third sector as explained by Demetrious. Community engagement is a free option for citizens to independently act and think so that they evaluate their options. Deliberative democracy combines with citizenship theory in providing a clear picture of how public communication in engaging the community by using a stakeholder consultation and capacity building for participation. While deliberative democratic theory provides a formula for public engagement, citizenship theory gives the framework to which the capacity to exercise the entitlement to participate decision-making is developed.
Community engagements should be based on the two principles of respect to equality of the importance of each member of the society and a common aim of having a fair and just society. Although the context of community engagement may be blinded by other influencing factors such as technological developments and globalization, failure to adhere to the principles outlined above will lead to a failure of the organization or government in question to achieve its desired objectives (Demetrious 2006).
To illustrate the importance of aligning the objectives to the common good of the community, this paper will discuss the case study of Werribee Residents against Toxic Dumps (WRATD). The WRATD case highlights the relationship of the system of engagement as outlined in the deliberative democracy theory and the reasons and expectation for engagement in line with the citizenship theory. In this case study, the community group is constituted in a deliberative democratic way and demonstrates the vigour and inventiveness that is highlighted in the citizenship theory as a prerequisite for effective community engagement.
Today, there are numerous channels of news delivery accessible to a large number of people in the Australia. While this is important and good for informing the public on local and national matters, the manner in which the news is delivered to the consumers of the news has a significant influence in shaping up the personal views of the citizens. As citizenship theory reflects the entitlement of the citizenry to participate in decision-making, it fails to offer a remedy to the possible manipulation of the public opinion by opinion leaders such that the individualistic intention of public engagement is nullified. On its own, citizenship theory is incapable of sustain the debate of the importance of community engagement for the sustainability of the society. The context of citizenship theory has to include the democratic theory so that the process view compliments the purpose view.
Empirical Evidence from the WRATD Case
van Moorst (2001) offers a discussion of how the WRATD was able to defeat the intention of CSR to convert land in their neighbourhood to a dumping site. The case advanced by WRATD against the intention of CRS was presented as the common interest of the neighbourhood community residence to ensure that their community remains sustainable according to their conceived way. WRATD in declining the proposition by CSR offered alternative mechanisms of managing the waste in question.
In the WRATD case, CSR hoped to turn its quarry located in the Werribee area into a land fill site to which the local residents considered it a toxic dumping site. In this case, CSR had a public relations task of convincing the Warribee community group that their intentions were not going to be harmful. Their position was informed by the organization’s need to make an economical use of the abandoned quarry after it was no longer viable for mining. From an economic perspective, the intention is noble, however it fails to meet the principle of community engagement that dictates all decision-making outcomes be geared towards a common good. The preposition was one sided and does not incorporate the view of the community who are stakeholders CSR, given that its objectives affect them and are reliant upon their consent of engagement as in this case of the land fill site.
The waste proposed to fill the quarry was classified as the most hazardous and required proper management lest it results to life threatening consequences of living organisms. In proposing the site, CSR argued that it needed a replacement for its existing land fill site, and to coat the negative effects of the site to the WRATD, it offered a suggestion of a possible installation of an alternative recycling option. In its defence, CSR named the technological advancements that shall be incorporated in the set-up of the facility so that public safety is guaranteed. In addition, it offered consolation that the site would fall under the monitoring authority of the EPA. The defence of CSR was delivered in their Environmental Effect Statement (ESS).
The CSR approach reflects a representative democratic concept of community engagement. The company seeks to present the safety concerns of all stakeholders in its ESS. CSR assumes a mandate of evaluating the dangers of the land fill facility and goes ahead to make a decision based on its deliberations on the proper way forward to sustain its economic livelihood while holding the environmental safety concerns of the residents. As noted earlier, this move is noble, however, its practicability is limited to the fact that the decision-making making approach taken is not accommodative of all the present concerns of all stakeholders, therefore it is not the ‘decision of the many’ as presented in the third concept of the democratic theory (Demetrious 2002).
The examination of the response by WRATD to oppose the development of the land fill facility highlights the workings of the citizenship theory in community engagement. It is important to note that the WRATD started as a small community and gained a considerable voice in public opinion as it grew in membership. We can say that all members of the WRATD were stakeholders of the decision by CSR to put a land fill facility in the neighbourhood. Decisions by a citizen have externalities effects to other citizens. On the same note, citizenship goes beyond membership to a particular community. It may be active where the citizen is participative publicly to the life of the community or inactive where the citizen claims the right to be treated fairly in the community and nothing more. In addition, citizenship may be viewed in multiple ways. In the multiple view, citizenship differs according to the site, context and domain in which it is examined. In the same way, the different forms of citizenship involve multiple capacities (Strangio 2001).
Having understood the multiple dimensions of citizenship, we now refer to corporate citizenship which encompass more that the known convectional ideas. In this case, corporate citizenship has to be about relationships and partnerships for the long-term as a way to develop trust and create value in communities. On this front, relating to the WRATD case, CSR failed to live up to corporate citizenship ideals as presented above and in the citizenship theory. Thus, their demise as dishonest organization cannot be questioned on the grounds of unfairness. Community engagement, dictates fairness on all citizenry and the failure of CSR to consider in depth the impact of the proposition on the livelihood of the community residents clearly shows the consequence of being an irresponsible citizen (Werribee Residents Against Toxic Dumps 1998).
The WRATD effort to thwart the proposition by CSR did not smoothly sail to victory. The community group faced the challenges of coordination of its members and budget to finance its campaigns. The realization of a common goal by WRATD is worth mentioning as a cohesive factor that eventually facilitated the successful coordination of its campaign. The engagement of the citizens in the public debates within the WRATD led to the eventual outcomes. First is the realization that the government lacked a personal initiative to develop relevant policy to protect citizens against the environmental risks. Second is the refining power of public debate to the issues of public life such as environmental pollution. Third is the highlighting of the fact that the community engagement has moved beyond the representative democratic concept and passive citizenship (Birch & Glazebrook 2000).
The reign of the rule by the many is now present. Community engagement has to consider the fact that the many will have their way and thus the intentions presented to the public debate or undertaken by any stakeholder must consist of a common goal to community sustainability (Vandenberg (ed.) 2000). This hindsight should inform both protagonists and antagonists in a debate on the best way forward for the advancement of their views. Furthermore this case highlights the role of communication in community engagement. Failure to win over the media to ones side of the argument is a catastrophic blow to one’s argument position in the given case. The system of community engagement in any organization or agency should incorporate the deliberative democratic concepts as a realization of the entitlement that each of their members has on the decision-making process. Furthermore, the same should inform their engagement with other groups.