Proceedings of the 58th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2014 United States, Proceedings of the 58th Meeting of ISSS, Washington DC, USA, July 2014

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A Systems View of Community Engagement: Exploration for Simple Rules of Interaction to Explain Community Resistance in Landfill Siting Situations

Phil Cook


Success within today’s corporate environment is increasingly dependent upon the corporation’s successful interaction with its community. Communities are increasingly aware of their rights and demand responsible treatment from Corporations. This paper looks specifically at the Community Engagement dynamics involved in Landfill Siting situations.  In the same manner that the flocking of birds or the structure of termite mounds emerge from what are relatively “simple” noncomplex activities, interactions and interdependencies; can we identify these noncomplex activities in situations of successful and unsuccessful landfill sitings? This paper begins the process of exploration and identification of noncomplex activities which occur in these situations. The purpose of this exploration is to add to the body of Community Engagement Theory in a meaningful and practical way through the use of Systems Concepts involving Complex Human Systems. These concepts are those low level interactions which produce higher level processes - community resistance / acceptance - in multi-layered complex systems. Also, the exploration will take note of the higher level system processes - quality of engagement i.e. Transformational, Transactional, Transitional - that constrain or induce the lower level system processes. Note will be taken of the coevolution of these system levels toward either a successful or unsuccessful siting situation.  The paper explores extant literature concerning Community and Community Engagement research in an effort to identify predominant and not so predominant thinking in the domain. Exploration in this domain of literature reveals many similar themes of interaction, interdependency and actions. The paper begins with a look at what is commonly or not so commonly defined as “Community”. Several definitions of varying perspective prevail including; Community as stakeholder, Community as groups, Communities of practice, Communities geographically defined, and Communities of individuals. A practical whilst perhaps not definitive definition of Community is proposed for the purposes of the exploration. Not surprisingly this definition is a synthesis of the theory to date interpreted through the lens of Systems theories. Given a practical definition of Community, then, the paper turns to the literature to explore the differing actions, interactions and interdependencies peculiar to Community Engagement. Using the same method the author identifies a definition of Engagement from the literature and then turns the exploration toward the actions, interactions and interdependencies produced during Community Engagement. An emergent theme in the literature regarding Community Engagement is that of the “quality” of engagement. Although, this is found stated in several different manners, the author identifies key similarities and defines three qualities of engagement: Transactional, Transitional and Transformational. These types disaggregate into differing categories or qualities of engagement including; one way communication, two way communication, empowerment, inclusion, consensus building, multiparty dialogues, collaboration and “Guerrilla” public relations, etc. Exploration beyond the quality of Engagement encompasses additional themes in the literature including; NIMBY, NIABY, Community acceptance, Community Resistance, Stakeholder Theory, Bonding and Bridging Social Capital, Reflexive Modernization (Equity, trust, Participation), Risk to the Community and the corporation, etc. While the literature in the domain is vast there are several low systems level noncomplex interactivities and interdependencies that can be identified.A Systems perspective of the low level system interdependencies and interactions leads one to the conclusion that pre-knowledge of the quality of engagement and its potential consequences in producing high level system processes can provide valuable strategic information to those involved in situations of landfill siting.The paper concludes with a summation of this synthesis and a suggestion of field study to be carried out to further test the Community Engagement theory derived through this secondary research. The end result of field study will contribute greatly to the justification and use of engagement quality as an important corporate strategic tool.

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