Community Engagement Done Differently
How are we framing community engagement in the Islander Way regenerative tourism living lab? What are the challenges and the opportunities of doing engagement differently?
Image: Strait Gallery, Flinders Island (Tasmania) hosted a community-led response to the Islander Way project.
Redefining community engagement in tourism
We are reframing community engagement in tourism. We are re-defining the approach and the values underpinning why we engage and who we engage with.
Stepping outside the way things are usually done, and challenging expectations about what should be the aim of community consultation comes with challenges. It can upset the status quo, and the unknown consequences of change can cause anxiety and even fear. New approaches can draw reactions ranging from finding new voices of support to the established voices pushing back.
In other words, change is never smooth or linear. It involves disruption and pushback. Inevitably, as learning takes place, these new ideas become 'comfortable' and acceptable. But it can be a hard process. Change can have its discontents, but change can also lead to the identification of new opportunities and lightbulb moments. All we need to do is leave judgement aside and lean in with an open mind so that we can learn from the process. In this post, our approach to community consultation is outlined and the challenges and opportunities that present themselves in the process are explored.
Our community engagement approach is designed in response to key shifts currently taking place:
1. Tourism's social licence hangs in the balance
The term social licence is the level of acceptance or approval that stakeholders and communities extend to a project, site, company or industry (Governance Institute of Australia). Pre-pandemic, communities across the world were questioning the social licence of tourism to operate as a result of the increasing impacts of tourism. During the pandemic, communities including the Flinders Island community, started asking more pointed questions like "What is the value of tourism to our local community?"
All indications so far in the Islander Way project suggest that hosting visitors is an important element of a strong local economy in the future. According to research from the Australian Institute of Company Directors research, for sectors that rely heavily on the use of public goods such as the community and the environment, mapping the wider value of tourism (beyond personal economic benefit) will be essential to secure its social licence in the future.
2. Redefining community to include diverse interests
Inclusion, and respecting the right of all community members to have a say in the decisions that affect them, is increasingly important. The traditional approach to defining 'community' is to think of "key stakeholders". These key stakeholders are usually drawn from industry and include operators who are are aligned with established directions and policies. It is an approach that has been criticised for its lack of representation and distance from the wider community. However, communities everywhere are pushing back and there is an undeniable shift towards acknowledging the rights of all individuals to have a say in the decisions that affect them. In the context of community consultation, the definition of "community" needs to be inclusive.
3. Redefining who has 'expertise' influences who should be included in conversations
Alongside a redefinition of who should be included in community conversations about the future of tourism, is a rethinking of what is 'expertise' in tourism. People think in different ways, at different speeds, and have different lived experiences. This collective knowledge can contribute to richer, more collaborative and innovative approaches and the identification of opportunities that incumbents may not have seen. Importantly, ground-up, place-based knowledge, when combined with top-down insights and big picture thinking, can open up collective thinking that is community-led and place-based. The challenge AND the opportunity is to tap into local talents, expertise, energy and creativity that is often overlooked in top down approaches.
4. A political shift toward well-being will influence how tourism is framed
There is no doubt that the pandemic accelerated new thinking about our relationships with the planet, with other people, and with the economy. Pre-pandemic, serious questions were being raised about who benefits from tourism. Post-pandemic, this thinking is revealing itself through shifting political commitments.
Recently, the Tasmania Premier made a commitment to developing Tasmania's first Wellbeing Framework. This shift is lifely to be a game changer for tourism alongside the emerging commitment to "Positive Impact". In this framework, Premier Rockliff recognised "that economic growth alone does not account for a community’s success or progress over time, (and that) health, inclusion and happiness (are also) key success factors."
The statement went on to explain "Well-being can mean different things to different people, but it includes economy, health, education, safety, housing, living standards, environment and climate, social inclusion and connection, identity and belonging, good governance and access and services."
This shift suggests that tourism may also be looked at through this lens of well-being. This raises questions about what kinds of other non-economic benefits and contributions can tourism make to community wellbeing. The Islander Way project already adopts this lens and is revealing important ways that the visitor economy can contribute to community wellbeing.
5. The community is part of and contributes to the visitor experience.
Everyone wants to feel welcome when they travel and visit a new place. However, the welcome that the community provides - the friendliness, the conversation, the thoughtfulness and care that can be displayed by locals in unplanned encounters - can be taken for granted. When the community feels that there is no beneficial relationship and that their hospitality is taken advantage of, they can push back. Relations can become strained and visitors can feel unwelcome. The easy solution is to value community more, to map the benefits that hosting visitors can bring, and make sure these benefits are clearly demonstrated. But this is easier said than done!
Historically, community and the environment have been free resources that contribute to the visitor experience and the 'tourism offer'. But the pushback by communities across the world pre-pandemic has resulted in an important shift. The tourism industry can no longer get away with just assuming that the community will benefit or that the community supports tourism. A more nuanced approach is needed. There is an increasing push to map the value produced by tourism, to assess where this value is accumulated and who benefits, by communities themselves.
6. Institutional space for community engagement in the future of tourism
Approaches to community consultation are also changing. Traditionally, tourism does not do community engagement well. There is no tradition of asking the broader community and no clear institutional space in which to have conversations about the future of tourism. Instead, community consultation usually takes place in planning and development assessment processes when applications are made to local councils. Not surprisingly, the conversation can become reactive and confrontational rather than constructive and generative. Ideally, there should be a space to engage in conversations about the type, style and intensity of tourism development that might be desirable. This is a gap that the Islander Way is seeking to fill.
7. A shift from consultation to empowerment and co-design
Approaches to community engagement are changing. Even the language is changing. Where we used to talk about community engagement, we now talk about community empowerment. But even that is changing. Empowering communities to collaboratively co-design the future of tourism is a clear shift we are facilitating in this project. In the Islander Way, we are seeking to work collaboratively with the community, in all its diversity, to co-design tourism. A co-design approach will boost the community's ownership and sense of self-determination over their future.
Our approach to community consultation in the Islander Way project is based on decades of experience working with different kinds of communities (e.g. business communities, place-based communities, and policy communities) at all scales (e.g. local, regional, national and international). Inspired by the IPA2 spectrum of community engagement, and based on experience, our approach follows distinguishing features, including:
Deep listening and building empathy for the lived experience. Regardless of whether someone is "in" tourism or not, the chances are that everyone in the community has knowledge of and experience with tourism. Everyone has the right to be heard.
Rejecting the old fashioned idea that expertise resides within a few individuals. Cross-pollination happens when people with different knowledge and experience come together, share, and collaboratively imagine the future together. New ways of working depend on new ways of looking at the challenges.
Putting bias aside and be agnostic (as much as possible!). Travel is part of the human condition and an agent of personal, social, cultural, economic, environmental and economic transformation. Collaboration requires that we put aside pre-conceived ideas about how it should be, who is right or wrong, and who should lead. We encourage the community to be open and willing to set aside old scores.
Imagining a new future for tourism takes courage. Stepping into a future that is uncertain, complex and ambiguous requires new ways of thinking, creativity, trust and conversational intelligence.
Rejecting early diagnosis. Attempts to diagnose the problem or adopt a solution too early locks in outcomes that may not be the best ones in the end. Early diagnosis and pre-empted solutions stymie local creativity, ingenuity, and energy, and ultimately, thwart the co-design process.
Listen to the questions being asked of the facilitators. We have found that, by listening and making note of the questions that are asked of us, we can better understand the key concerns and issues. Questions asked of us are like 'wormholes', an exploration of which helps to better understand the root cause of the community's issues.
Being inclusive and pursuing a diversity of input. Include a wide range of people who can bring different kinds of knowledge to the process. Consider and search out indigenous wisdom, cognitive diversity, lived experience, socio-demographic, gender and ethnic diversity, for example.
Accepting there will always be those that throw stones. Deep, genuine engagement is not easy. There will always be those that reject or criticise the process and/or the facilitators. People react in this way for a variety of reasons, but misinformation, fear of change, or anxiety about losing established influence are often the root cause. Information sharing and conversational intelligence are important steps that encourage people to feel less anxious about the process.
Awareness of the impact on facilitators. More often than not, deep community engagement is physically exhausting and emotionally draining for those undertaking the community conversations. Practising deep listening, reflection, and developing a generative question-driven approach requires focus, energy and courage, and the ability to 'read the room'.
Community engagement is a social contract. Community engagement is a social contract between the community and the facilitators. The goals of the consultation and the promise made to the community should be clearly set out.
Our aim in this process is to close the feedback loop and to engage in a deep way with the community. While we have not gathered formal feedback on the consultation process, anecdotal evidence so far suggests that we are gaining ground in the following ways:
Building trust within the community.
Establishing the social licence of the Islander Way project and its actions.
Closing the feedback loop, giving an opportunity for the community to learn, reflect and shape emerging actions.
Building a sense of inclusion and cohesion about the community's future relationship with tourism.
Providing opportunities for community members to learn, take initiative, and take leadership roles.
Note: Further posts will detail the activities involved in the community engagement exercise and analysis.