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Lessons for Civic Engagement Part 1

In this article, we look at frameworks to help public sector organizations understand how they can begin tackling the efforts of effective relationship building. If you are someone who is involved in policies and decision-making, or in a public sector role that is public-facing—this article is for you.


No matter who we are, or where we come from, the power and importance of relationships is one main takeaway that humanity can agree on. This has been exceedingly salient in the past year—and then some. All around the world, many of us leaned into our relationships in order to manage the isolation and stress of the global pandemic.

The relevance of relationships is more than just what we experience on an interpersonal level. Recently in British Columbia, we saw the passing of former Supreme Court Judge Thomas Berger, who led the way in moving the country forward on issues of Indigenous title-to-land and meaningful public consultation. He accomplished this by visiting Indigenous communities and “listen[ing] to the people who were on the land and knew the issues of ownership”.

The actions of Judge Thomas Berger are just one example of the importance of relationships between public institutions and the communities that they serve. Relationships are key touchstones that enable effective governance and service provision through building trust, empathy, understanding, and learning which results in aligned policies, decision-making, and processes. Ultimately what we see are more effective, involved, and resilient communities.

If the effects of relationship-building sound idealistic, it’s because they are. This is actually a good thing as it means that there will always be space to grow within any organization—evolution should be ongoing and constant. Still, the concept of strengthening relationships with the community can often feel like an ambiguous and overwhelming goal. So, what can we do to make this feel and be more manageable?

In this article, we look at frameworks to help public sector organizations understand how they can begin tackling the efforts of effective relationship building. This article was written as a follow-up from Civil Space (by Zencity) research aimed at understanding public engagement and inclusivity, where we saw the importance of relationships as a key foundation for effective engagement. If you are someone who is involved in policies and decision-making, or in a public sector role that is public-facing—this article is for you.

Engagement Practice Frameworks

The first framework that we introduce is a blended framework which includes a figure that might be familiar to many of our readers – the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) spectrum of participation which you will see highlighted in grey, on the top half of the below diagram.

For an accessible spreadsheet version of the diagram, visit this link.

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The IAP2 spectrum is meant to “assist [public institutions] with the selection of the level of participation that defines the public’s role in any public participation process.” When the spectrum is considered alone, it can be too simplistic. In order to effectively facilitate a particular level of participation, having a relationship with the community is key. The more involved the public is meant to be, the deeper the relationship needs to run. The bottom half of the framework layers a relationship-building competency model to showcase what relationships at each level of participation need to look like, and how using them can facilitate that level of engagement.

To better contextualize this, important considerations from the participation levels of Inform to Empower, include:

  • Inform: Do you understand how to best provide comprehensive information to the public who you are trying to inform? For example, do you know the needs of the community and what this might mean for how information needs to be provided, such as language, medium, and accessibility?
  • Consult/Involve: Do you understand how people are able to provide feedback and get involved? For example, surveys can capture a large segment of the community, but there may be groups that are left out because of a misalignment in understanding their needs, such as access to technology or technical literacy.
  • Collaborate/Empower: Do you understand who are effective members of the public to work with to provide the best outcome that can reflect the community at large? For example, with consideration with key groups that have a stake in a decision, such as persons with disabilities, do you know which individuals or organizations are relevant in those communities? And, more importantly, have you built trust with them?

Without effective relationships, it can be difficult to reach and engage the right audiences at any level of the participation spectrum. This, in turn, can lead to breakdowns in trust and engagement.

Organizational Frameworks

After examining these levels of participation and relationship building, a salient question remains: how does one actually begin to develop these relationships within an organization?

To deconstruct this, we borrow from the design world and introduce Atomic Design. The Atomic Design framework is a systems-thinking approach that is an effective application to public organizations and the communities that they serve, as they are ultimately a network of systems that interact with and impact one another.

When it comes to this application, the simplest way to break down a public organization is as:

  • Atoms as the single individuals within an organization
  • Molecules as the departments within that organization and
  • Organisms as the entirety of the organization

This Atomic Model can also be applied at the community level, though it will be more nuanced depending on the context in question. For example, a community can mean an entire city as an organism. Depending on the context, the molecules might be the neighborhoods within a city or a population segment such as BIPOC folks, and the atoms are the individuals who make up these groups. Another example of a community at the organism level might be the students in a post-secondary institution, molecules as the different streams of study, and atoms as the individuals in these streams.

At each level, relationship building will have different purposes, and building these relationships will look different as well. It is important to remember that all levels of relationship building are impactful as they have trickle up and trickle down effects. Relationships can be particularly useful at the atomic level, as individuals have more personal control to put energy into connections and create lasting impacts.

An example of the power of relationships at the atomic level is described in the report After the Riots, which looks at the events of the 2011 London Riots. In this report, it was found that in order to “dramatically improve their relationships with communities,” the police needed to “improve the quality of minor encounters,” such as the case of one-to-one atomic instances.

So what might this actually look like at each level? In the points below we provide some pragmatic ways to look at each and identify:

  • The purpose of relationship building at each level
  • The practical considerations to think about to enable relationship building
  • Why relationships at these levels might be eroded
  • How relationships at these levels can be built
  • What relationship-building actually looks like on the ground


  • The purpose of atoms is to build trust, since trust often starts from the ground up.
  • Important considerations of atomic level relationships is that they take more time to develop, and so we must account for this. The investments that are put in at the present moment will strengthen overtime and will benefit public engagement in the future. It is also important to understand where atomic relationships are most effective. While any relationship at any kind of level is valuable, there are certain situations where investing in atomic relationships can go a long way—such as in the example above regarding law enforcement where 1:1 interactions have a huge impact.
  • In understanding that atomic relationships are 1:1, understanding where, how and why they were broken will guide your ability to repair them. This disconnect can often look like singular or repeated negative experiences with individuals who represent an organization, such as a negative customer service experience. To mitigate this, the solution needs to be at that 1:1 level, including repairs to those interaction points and supplemented by genuine, conciliatory efforts such as with coffee chats, office hours, showing up to community events, etc.


  • Molecular relationships serve to not only build trust but to contribute to building systems that effectively serve a community. This is most effectively encapsulated by the saying “nothing about us, without us”.
  • Considerations of molecular level relationships include understanding which molecules (or groups) are relevant for building these relationships. Focus on the wrong molecules, and you’ll get the wrong result.
  • Molecular relationships tend to break down because of negative experiences with a group and their systems within an organization or simply just being left out. To build molecular relationships, proactive outreach is important and this can look like consistent presence at community events, active collaboration with relevant groups including collaboration with existing groups or creating intentionally curated and representative advisory groups.


  • Organism level relationships serve to reconcile and repair broken relationships at the institutional level.
  • Considerations for organism level relationships is context. Systemic issues are often regional and this needs to be taken into account when looking at rebuilding trust.
  • Organism level relationships are complex and how they were broken is often fraught with systemic issues with a history that can extend before anybody was even in a particular organization, or even in the world. Mitigation isn’t the goal here. Reconciliation is and this is done through not only the inclusion and empowerment of those who have been wronged, but systemic changes in policies and culture as well.

So, What's Next?

Building relationships is a journey, not a sprint. Whether you’re an individual, the manager of a department, or at the head of an organization—we hope that these frameworks will give you a better idea of understanding the scales of relationships, how they apply to participation levels, and how to achieve them regardless of where you sit in an organization. Building these relationships is doable, whether this means involving the right people for a single engagement, or developing trust within the community at a more macro level.

Below, we would like to leave you with three areas of consideration to explore within your own organization:

  • Recognize where you are in the organizational chain in order to understand what are the possible things you can contribute to in relationship building
  • Regardless of your position in an organization, small relationship-building actions (at the atomic level) will contribute to the snowball effect
  • Don’t lose sight of the end game and celebrate the small wins—whether it’s connecting with one community member or an entire group

In addition, there are also two concrete next steps you can take to strengthen your relationship-building efforts:

  • Find your organizational cheerleaders who will buy-in, support, enable and evangelize relationships
  • Leverage your localized Alliance of Information and Referral Systems groups (211) that can connect your organization with community groups that provide services for different audiences. For a nominal fee, they can sometimes help you understand which community groups have a stronger presence in the community, so you know which ones are valuable to connect with

After all, change is in the making and if you are doing it right, it’s never done.


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