The Community Conversation methodology enables “communities to participate as active agents in determining the shape of the places in which they live and the services they require"
The development of the Community Conversation methodology is to enable “communities to participate as active agents in determining the shape of the places in which they live and the services they require… a right to participate is a foundational principle of civic democracy”.
The approach emerged from research undertaken on local education provision in the context of area-planning1 for schools in Northern Ireland. A research team at Ulster University was engaged by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) to carry out non-partisan community conversations that gave local communities a voice in relation to future school provision in their area. By collecting these views, it was possible to build a robust evidence base so that statutory authorities responsible for managing school provision could incorporate community informed decision-making into education planning and policy implementation. The methodology was applied initially in a rural context where there was an over-supply of school places: it could equally be applied to urban settings and to areas where there are insufficient school places.
Community Conversations provide a vehicle for effective civic engagement and recognise the importance of local, grassroots experience as distinct from policy makers and other statutory stakeholders. Inclusive dialogue is essential at all levels of society and some issues are too important to be the sole decision of policy makers and politicians. As a methodology, the Community Conversation does not presume to have all the answers or to resolve a particular issue but, as a process, it can challenge perspectives, contribute critical insights and thereby provide a strong evidence to inform the direction of policy opinion and implementation.
Its simplicity and transferability to a range of social issues means that the Community Conversation methodology has gained wide acceptance as a model of engagement. While initially more prevalent in health settings, it has relevance to a wide range of socially sensitive issues spanning education provision, disability, community relations, and housing, amongst others. As a means of engagement, a Community Conversation approach can be particularly valuable in conflict or post-conflict societies (such as Northern Ireland), where segregated communities continue to struggle with changes and challenges to the status quo and the range of viewpoints on local issues can be highly sensitive and contentious for the communities involved.