Tracking the Development of Community Engagement Over Time: Realist Qualitative Study

J Particip Med. 2024 May 15:16:e47500. doi: 10.2196/47500.


Background: A growing interest in engaging communities in the development of health care services and communities has not automatically led to progress or consensus as to how to engage communities successfully, despite the evidence base showing how to leverage enablers and alleviate barriers.

Objective: To bridge the gap between the evidence base and which community engagement (CE) approaches have actually been applied in practice over time, this study aims to investigate how CE approaches have changed over the past 4 years in 6 different regions in the Netherlands and citizens' and professionals' experiences underlying these changes.

Methods: For the last stage of a multiple case study following the development of CE approaches in 6 different regions in the Netherlands, a realist qualitative case study was conducted. To investigate how CE approaches had changed over the past 4 years, data from the entire 4 years of the study were used, including documents, interview transcripts, and observations. To examine citizens' and professionals' experiences underlying these changes, new interviews were conducted. The latest interview results were discussed with a panel to ensure the results had face validity.

Results: The regions had implemented different types of CE approaches over the past 4 years and were adapting these approaches over time. Many of the (remaining) approaches may be operating on a smaller scale. The study identified the following overarching themes along which CE had been adapted: fewer region-wide approaches and more community-focused approaches, more focus on building relationships with (already engaged) citizens and community-led initiatives, and more focus on practical and tangible health promotion and social cohesion activities and less focus on complex "abstract" programs. The study identified a further 4 overarching themes highlighting citizens' and professionals' experiences underlying these changes in the CE approaches: a lack of engagement environment, need for facilitative leadership from organizations, need for a clear and shared vision underscoring the importance of CE, and misalignment between citizens' and professionals' perspectives and motivations for CE. All participants had experienced the engagement environment as insufficient. To support CE, professionals experienced the need to develop and receive more facilitative leadership and to develop approaches better equipped to involve citizens in the decision-making process. Citizens experienced the need to better align citizens' and professionals' motivations and aims for CE approaches and to receive longer-term financial support for their community-led initiatives.

Conclusions: This study suggests that CE has not yet been embedded within organizational cultures. This has arguably meant that the (remaining) CE approaches are operating on a smaller scale. To enable the further development of CE approaches, an investment in the engagement environment and a shared vision is required. Only then could CE within the regions move beyond the more seemingly smaller-scale CE approaches.

Keywords: citizen involvement; community engagement; decentralization; health care; realist evaluation.