An engaging conversation

Our week of local government introspection continues with part four today, and as yesterdays post seemed at first to be similar to one earlier in the week, so today’s touches on yet remains separate to another post, namely that around digital engagement and innovation.  Before exploring this link let’s start at the basics.

Starter for ten: What is engagement and why bother with it?  A pair of very simple questions perhaps but worth asking.  Engagement in relation to local government centres around how we involve local people in the planning, running and evaluation of our services, and comes in a number of forms and methods.  Popular engagement techniques include surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, workshops and interviews, but can also be as creative as World Cafes, PinPoint, Open Space facilitation or Planning for Real.

As for why, well if you have to ask this then perhaps you’ve not been around local government for too long.  The business case is fairly simple: firstly we are told we have to, secondly it helps us builds a two-way relationship with residents and thirdly good engagement actually opens up a huge world of knowledge which we otherwise may not find out about.

We’ve often remarked that you should never throw away your drainpipe trousers as sooner or later they will come back into fashion, and so it seems to be the case with approaches to community engagement.  There is no one single way of doing this, and so successive governments have tried various ways to encourage or force local authorities and residents to engage with each other.  Just a few years ago for example, the Communities in Control white paper hit inboxes and desks around the country, and promised to revolutionise the standards of involvement and engagement between service providers and service users.  It introduced a number of new ‘duties’ on local authorities, including:

  • Duty to promote democracy
  • Duty to involve
  • Duty to inform
  • Duty for councils to respond to petitions
Due to some pesky election results they never got to see whether these duties would have a real and long lasting effect on councils, as by the time the paper came out and began to be embedded a new and even more challenging beast was on the horizon: the Localism Act.  Like a slightly less random version of Wacky Races this tried to get to the same destination but from a slightly different angle, and also aimed to get more power into the hands of local people but in some different ways.
Among other things, the Localism Act introduced a few new ‘rights’ into the common vernacular.  We now live in an age where the ‘right to bid’ gives communities the opportunity to identify local physical assets and effectively bid to take them over.  Some obvious examples include libraries, youth clubs or market places, but effectively if an asset is identified as being of vital importance to the continued life of a community then they will have the right to bid to take ownership of it and run it for the benefit of all.
My reading of this is that the process established is one which few will be able or willing to complete, and there is a very real danger of it being seen simply as a method of delaying the sale of an asset into private hands or closing it down for good rather than as a positive and proactive action.  Only those with real organisation skills and the ability to understand and play the system will be able to take advantage of this, and I fear that many areas will be left behind for want of adequate support to identify assets, get them added to the agreed lists and then to effectively raise the required funding to take them on.
In order for this system to work, a significant amount of support, guidance and advice needs to be made available to ordinary people, and extensive engagement done with potentially interested groups over a period of time in  order to build up the required trust and relationships.  Simply throwing the right to bid out there is not enough to actually ensure it is used beneficially and results in effective use of it.
In many respects, the sister right to the right to bid is the ‘right to challenge’.  This right allows local organisations or groups, or even members of staff currently running a service to effectively stand up and say “I could run this better if the service weren’t part of the council”.  Councils would then be required to consider this and to respond, and if they thought the point was well made to then run a procurement process advertising that service for groups and organisations to bid to run.
On the surface this seems like a very interesting idea, with the potential to open up engagement with local people in a way not undertaken before.  If local people feel empowered to be able to challenge the delivery of a service from the angle of them taking it over and delivering it more effectively and/or efficiently then opportunities abound.
However, there are also a number of caveats to this right which cause me concern.  Not least amongst my concerns are that it is the council who are the sole determinants of whether or not a service could be delivered otherwise, along with the decision makers as to how they will then proceed.  How impartial can one truly be when someone else effectively says they are better than you at what you do?  And what’s to stop you from taking the basis of their argument and playing the system for your own gain?  If a local group declares they could run their local library far better than you, what better way to put them in their place than to agree, only to expand the procurement process to include every single library in the borough, thus probably putting it far beyond their capacity to deliver?
My problem with both of these is that both at some stage put us in a position where the public is calling their council out as either incompetent or inefficient, which is no way to start a genuinely productive and positive working relationship.  Engagement opportunities should start with all those with a stake in an area coming together to identify what is wrong with an area and how each of them can address it, as well as identifying what is right there and what they can all do to support and perpetuate it.
It is in neighbourhood planning that I see the most opportunity for this type of relationship to be most strongly formed and the most positive outcomes to result from.  The ability for local people to come together and plan out how they would like their area to develop over time seems to me eminently sensible, with the local authority then being able to enforce it (assuming it passes a local referendum).  Local authorities will be able to support neighbourhood forums to develop their plans, and in fact are obliged by law to do so.  This will allow both the local authority to further understand the needs and desires of local people from their perspectives rather than from our own, and will also have the added benefit of allowing local people to understand the demands on councils and the balancing acts they have to make on a constant basis.

Tied in with this is the new ‘requirement to consult communities before submitting certain planning applications’ which has been placed upon developers.  All too often councils foot the blame when developers undertake poor and meaningless consultation processes before putting planning applications in which will have real impact on communities.  By legislating against this developers will be forced to actually consider the views and opinions of local people, which in turn should lead to better outcomes for all concerned.

Scrutiny is a third area where real change is afoot.  Amongst other things, the Health and Social Care Bill is bestowing health scrutiny powers on local authorities meaning greater focus will be given by authorities to these matters.  The advent of Healthwatch as it evolves from its previous LINks incarnation should encourage local groups and individuals to share their thoughts and opinions on health and social care issues even more regularly, with the local authority having even more power to then make change happen as a result of these comments.  It is this ability and willingness to both listen and then to act which is vital if engagement of any type is to have meaning.

Engagement with residents is something which nigh-on all councils now take seriously, even if some residents don’t agree that they actually undertake their work well enough.  Some residents will turn up to engagement activities regardless of their belief that they are being listened to or have real power, and others will never turn up however easy it is made or what it will result in; as long as their bins are collected and potholes are filled in they simply don’t feel a need to have their say heard.  It’s the large chunk in between these two extremes however where we need to focus our time, energy and dwindling resources.

Councils need to ensure that they are engaging with the right people at the right time in the right way: we also need to do this with a degree of consistency that is hard to maintain.  All officers – not only those with ‘engagement’, ‘participation’, ‘consultation’, ‘involvement’ or something similar in their job titles – must get to the point where engaging with residents is a natural task, one which they do early and one which they do often.  The localgov mind is willing and the localgov body is doing its best to deliver; with just a little resource to fuel this, quality engagement could work wonders for some time to come.

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One Comment on “An engaging conversation”

  1. kriswith Says:

    I’d certainly agree that the rights to challenge, bid and build look like bureaucratic nightmares that will beyond the capacity of most communities to engage with. Neighbourhood planning, if done well and resourced could have a much greater and more positive impact.

    The other key driver for engagement that you miss is the change in expectation from communities and individuals. People expect to be able to influence what is going on around them now and to be able to do so quickly and easily. This is true of customer services in the private sector and the government. The expectation of responsiveness is a genie that is out of the bottle and we need to adapt accordingly.

    We also have to be realistic. Most people don’t want to get involved. They just want the services they use to be run well. There is a core of activitists that engage across a range of issues, a wider group who get involved on particular issues and then a bigger a group again who just want to know what is going on and that they could get involved if we wanted to. We need to get better at this involve, consult, inform spectrum and understand more about how these come together.

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