For Valentines Day my other half gave me a very unexpected and welcome surprise by writing a piece for us on how involved she felt she was and wanted to be with her local Council. She shared that she had very little to do with the council, instead trusting them to do what was needed as well as they could. Whilst some people felt that this was an old fashioned view which doesn’t exist any more, I can assure you that it is alive and kicking at home!
It got me thinking about how much time and effort we put into engagement with the public and whether or not it is effort well spent. I speak with a small degree of knowledge having worked I the public engagement arena for almost 16 years in one form or another, both in the public and voluntary sectors.
In my current workplace we are constantly developing things which affect our residents: action plans, strategies, policies, procedures, and headaches amongst others. As is the way with any hierarchical organisation the real work is done by operational staff who generally know their onions, and base their thoughts and ideas on extensive theoretical and practical knowledge mixed with a healthy dose of experience. They rarely suggest anything outrageous, and generally strive to do what is best.
These plans and projects then begin their slow crawl through the bureaucratic process to get signed off and implemented: this often involves a variation on taking it to their team, their line manager, their service head (and their team), their director (and their team) and potentially on to the chief exec and then on in turn to elected members and/or mayors and their advisors. None of this is quick, and with each new person or group comes a perceived requirement to change a bit here or ask a pointless question there.
And of course at the final hurdle comes the usual phrase: have you done any consultation with the public? No? Well, go away and do it and then come back when you have.
This is often the stage when my team and I get involved with things. We are then faced with staff who know what they are doing is right and that most people will agree with it, but have to go through a consultation process to get that proof. They also need to demonstrate that they have information from every section of the community, however it is cut up.
Invariably they demand that we do the barest minimum in terms of engagement, and often take a line out of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by hiding the plans in a locked basement with no stairs or light and guarded by a leopard. In their opinion, the fewer people who get involved, the fewer alterations that are required.
Of course, that is never enough for those insistent managers. In their eyes there is no reason why every single person who lives in, works in, plays in, visits or has read about the borough via Wikipedia doesn’t get involved and have their say. After all, every single council policy and strategy will impact directly or indirectly on their lives, so they should be interested in shaping it and understanding the intricacies involved. Who would possibly object to filling out a survey on recycling in the borough? So what if it means also reading a 118 page supporting document first, it’s an issue they care about so they’ll do it, won’t they?
In reality the truth lies somewhere in between, as of course it always does. There is a very small group of people at the top of the engagement pyramid who are exactly like this. They will read through every single document and set of minutes as if their lives depended upon it, and respond to every survey no matter how mundane. They will also turn up at just about every public meeting, and are usually well known to officers and councillors alike. Some may be a fantastic resource, positive and helpful, although more often than not they are a fair it more negative and derided as being one of the Usual Suspects.
Below that are a wider group of people who will engage with issues and one-off topics that pique their interest, but aren’t interested in other issues unless they are directly related. Very useful, this group provide the bulk of any engagement respondents and often provide a fairly balanced view.
Right down the bottom are those people who go out of their way not to get involved. Whether it’s through mistrust of the Council, active dislike of authority, political reasons or just because they don’t want to, they will not engage with local government even if they were locked in a cell and the key was offered as a prize draw for filling in a short survey.
The main bulk of the population however fall somewhere between these last two groups. They pay their bills, are actively aware of a few of the council services on offer such as bin collection and road sweepers but are gloriously ignorant of the vast number of other services they passively consume, or that are used by their friends and families. It’s not that they don’t want to get involved, just that they don’t feel a need to.
It’s this group which my wife so happily sits in, and one which is so difficult to get involved. There is nothing compelling them, nothing driving them to have their say and there’s little stopping them if they want to. And is that really a bad thing?
In fact they are the group that we are driven to demand get involved. We try everything, from offering incentives and rewards to appealing to their sense of civic duty. Unless something we say pushes them to realise that this is an issue they actually care about, whatever we try passes them by as they just go about getting on with their lives and trying to stay afloat. And the world continues to turn, despite their indifference.
Much as I understand the need for statistical significance and the importance of active engagement, I have personally witnessed time and again local residents being expected to comment on a topic or policy which they barely understand. They are presented with a survey which asks something either massively technical or which is the equivalent of ‘do you like nice things’ and give their thoroughly uninformed opinion. Usually they either go wildly off topic or provide the same answers as have been provided in the past, serving only to reinforce existing views or to give officers a chance to say to them ‘we tried that and it didn’t work’.
Local government needs to be more realistic and smarter by far about how we engage with local people. We need to learn to love the usual suspects, and take advantage of the active and interested individuals as long as that interest continues. Once it wanes we need to be better at letting them go, but not before making sure they know about other things they might be interested in.
And we need to make sure that the masses have the opportunity to get involved, but not to demand that they do so. Most of us rebel when told we have to do something – if we continue to tell people that they need to engage then they will be less likely to actually do so. Instead we should be giving people the opportunity to get involved, the information to get involved and support once they are involved.
Let’s trust the experts that work in councils who know far more about their area of work than the average 100 people on the streets. Let’s let people live in their bubble if they want to, that’s their prerogative. Let’s just make sure that if they want to burst it and take part that we can help them do it without making a mess.