Horizontal and Vertical Community Engagement

The more I read and practice, the more aware I become of the many dimensions of community engagement. One of these dimensions is vertical and horizontal community engagement. One way to understand community engagement, is to consider the horizontal and vertical dimensions of citizenship. 

  • Vertical citizenship involves active citizenship in terms of engagement with the state (e.g., voting, being involved in consultations)
  • Horizontal citizenship involves active citizenship through being engaged with the local community (e.g., volunteering, acting out civic duty, membership of local institutions).

I realised this was relevant to the international community development practice too, especially working with specific groups like People with diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities, Expressions and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC)and People with disabilities. Both groups of people are often under-represented in aid projects. I also know from working with these communities, that their local community and informal networks often provides the materials and resources that they don’t receive when unengaged with the aid system. 

When I looked into the theory of horizontal and vertical community engagement  more, I came across a great paper by Eileen Conn  “Community engagement in the social eco-system dance”. In a thought-provoking article, she draws on complexity theory to compare two different types of relationships:

  • Vertical hierarchical systems are found in formal organisations, and are based on authority and line management, and have clear structures. They are the types of relationships we are likely to experience at work.
  • Horizontal peer systems are found in neighbourhoods, groups of friends and other informal networks. These relationships are based on personal links, are informal and rely on mutual interest.

Conn suggests that we often fail to recognise these differences and that this can lead to significant challenges when the two types of systems interact. Of course, these types of relations aren’t mutually exclusive. For example, peer, horizontal relationships play an important role in formal, hierarchical organisations as well as in communities. While there are similarities, there are also significant differences. I found it helpful to think in terms of vertical and horizontal community engagement.

Vertical community engagement

Vertical community engagement is where government, business, or other organisations want to engage the community in consultation, decision-making or in some other aspect of their work.

Vertical community engagement is particularly associated with consultation and planning, and is generally initiated from the top down, even if a bottom-up process is adopted. Examples might include a local government seeking community involvement in reducing plastic waste. An NGO attempting to engage community members in a climate resilience initiative. A multilateral agency wanting community involvement in a policy review. 

In terms of Conn’s article, this is where the two types of relationship interact.

Horizontal community engagement

Horizontal community engagement is where people are engaged in their local community as active community members. This type of community engagement is often associated with community building and community development. While it largely happens as a result of community interactions, the aim of many organisations and programs is to increase horizontal community engagement. Many voluntary community groups (e.g., sports clubs, environmental groups, identity based psychosocial support groups) are also keen (if not desperate) to increase engagement with their local community and to have more people engaged.

It may help to think of vertical and horizontal community engagement as dimensions of community development rather than being totally separate approaches. While the processes used to encourage vertical community, engagement are likely to be different to those used to enhance horizontal community engagement, many examples of community development involve aspects of both.