We know who to engage

Who should you be engaging with? Is there more than one community? Are there hidden audiences, hard-to-reach groups or people who may not be obvious stakeholders? These are key questions to ask at the beginning of an engagement that will help you determine which methodologies will attract people to your engagement (Principle 6).

Knowing who to engage with will flow naturally from knowing why you’re engaging (Principle 1). Throughout your engagement there are likely to be different voices vying to be heard, and it may be appropriate to engage them at different stages and in different ways.

When thinking about who to engage, consider:

  • Who is affected and interested?
  • Connecting with community leaders
  • Moving beyond the stakeholder list
  • Identifying hard-to-reach groups and individuals
  • Collaborating
  • Connectors, 'mavens' and salespeople
  • Local government

Who is affected and interested?

It’s important to identify people, communities and stakeholders who are affected by and interested in the topic of your engagement.

People may be directly affected by the topic or issue that you are engaging on, whereas others may simply be interested in the topic. While interested participants may not be directly affected, they can still have very strong views, opinions and ideas on the topic.

Affected and interested people and communities may fall into particular geographic, demographic, social or economic categories.

Stakeholders may include non-government organisations such as advocacy groups, peak bodies, industry groups and unions. Or they may include academic bodies such
as universities, research centres and think tanks. Interested stakeholders can often provide knowledge and insight, which complements the rst hand experience of affected communities and stakeholders.

Often, interested stakeholders will be able to support your engagement with affected stakeholders and communities. For example, peak bodies in the disability health sector may be able to provide advice on the appropriate ways to access and work with people with disability and organisations that represent them.

It might also be valuable to engage with people and stakeholders who are not affected to get an independent perspective. This can be particularly useful for complex issues.

A good engagement is one that draws people into the process by understanding what motivates and interests them. Take the time to understand the communities you’re going to engage, and get a handle on the people involved, their expectations, motivations and desires.

Try to understand what will motivate participation by asking, ‘what’s in it for them?’. Motivators can be intrinsic or extrinsic. People motivated intrinsically will take part without expecting any personal gain or benefit. For example, they may see the process as an opportunity to improve their community. People motivated extrinsically will expect some benefit or recognition from their participation. This could be immediate, such as the chance to win a prize related to the engagement (Principle 6). Or the motivation could be longer term – related to the outcome of the topic or issue that you are engaging on.

Connecting with community leaders

Find out more about the affected and interested communities. What are the key issues they are concerned with and what is the background to the specific issue you are engaging on (Principle 3)? Who are the community leaders who will be able to speak for their community and attract more people into the process, and what are the power dynamics in the community?

Community leaders may be obvious - local businesspeople, councillors, Aboriginal or multicultural leaders. Or they may be less obvious (and more diffcult to find) — a local teacher, environmental volunteer, or doctor. To help you identify community leaders, it might be useful to monitor local media, looking out for people who are writing columns or regularly corresponding with the editor.

Moving beyond the stakeholder list

It’s important that you consider those people you are engaging with from an appreciative lens and think about your stakeholders as an asset to your engagement process. Consider what they can contribute including their experiences and resources they can bring, as well as their key alliances.

In their book, "The Power of Co: The Smart Leaders' Guide to Collaborative Governance" Vivien Twyford and others discuss the concept of collaborative governance and compel us to consider who to engage with from an entirely different perspective than the traditional stakeholder list.

Sometimes, because of previous poor engagement processes, staff representing the government can be viewed with great scepticism in the community, and many people won’t trust you or your objectives. If you don’t have the luxury of trusting relationships, you need to be aware of who does, and how they might be able to support you to connect with the people you need to. You can find out more about this at Principle 3.

The Better Together website includes some stakeholder analysis tools that may help you move beyond the stakeholder list.

Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay writes about the importance of a sense of place in his book, "What Makes Us Tick?" 2 If you’re engaging with a geographically defined community, you should recognise that their sense of belonging to that place is likely to be high. Showing respect to and understanding of the community can help build strong relationships.

Hard-to-reach groups and individuals

This is an important aspect of effective engagement that practitioners need to carefully consider.

Hard-to-reach groups that you may need to consider as part of your engagement process include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) people, the disadvantaged and homeless, people with a disability, as well as children and young people. More information about making your engagement process inclusive of these groups is available on the Better Together website.

There is also sometimes a risk that a noisy minority will overwhelm the engagement process and prevent you from hearing the views and opinions of the quiet majority. Reaching the quiet majority will require effort. You’ll first need to identify that they exist and then discover why they are silent (not participating in your engagement). You may need to consider innovative ways to engage them. Having trust-based relationships with on-the-ground community leaders can be helpful with this. If you don’t have trusting relationships with the community and can’t establish them, random sampling can be an effective mechanism to obtain the views of a broad cross section.


Look for partnering opportunities. Are there other engagement processes or community events planned or underway that your process can be coordinated with? If there are you may be able to save time and resources by collaborating.

Another tier of government, government agency, or stakeholder may have stronger networks in the community than you, and you may find it much easier to partner with them to deliver engagement activities rather than starting from scratch or going solo.

Connectors, 'mavens' and salespeople

In his book "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference" 3, Canadian journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell identifies the types of people you need to connect with to drive change. He describes these people as being either connectors, mavens or salespeople.

  • Connectors link us up with the world... people with a special gift for bringing the world together. They are described as ‘a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [...for] making friends and acquaintances.’
  • Mavens are information specialists - experts who are known for accumulating knowledge and sharing it with others.
  • Salespeople are persuaders, charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills who can sell ideas and opinions to the public.

These categories might be useful to help identify people who could fulfil these roles and assist you with your engagement activity.

Who are the trusted leaders?

Identifying ‘community leaders’ and seeking their help to draw the community into an engagement process can deliver dividends in both numbers engaged and the quality of information gained.

Local Government

Keep local councils in mind when identifying your engagement audiences. Should you be catching up with the CEO, Mayor or Chairperson for coffee? Is it worth asking the council to promote engagement sessions through its networks? Or does the opportunity exist to partner with the council to deliver an engagement activity?

It’s often acknowledged that local government is the closest tier of government to the people because of its daily interaction with communities. Councils may also be able to provide a local perspective on the issue or topic of your engagement and highlight any issues or concerns that might need to be understood before your engagement begins (Principle 4).


  1. Vivien Twyford et al (2012), The Power of Co: The Smart Leaders Guide to Collaborative Governance
  2. Hugh Mackay (2010), What Makes us Tick? www.hughmackay.net.au 
  3. Malcolm Gladwell (2000), The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference