Community engagement and the power of ‘what if?’

February 7, 2023   By Tom Chigbo and Polly Lord

New Local’s Polly Lord and Tom Chigbo from TPXimpact share some of the learnings from their recent research looking at innovative community engagement, carried out with the Local Government Association (LGA).

Innovation starts with a bright spark. An individual with a new idea and the courage to try something different. We brought nearly 400 of those bright sparks together in a series of four workshops to discuss community engagement and uncovered some brilliant examples of bold and creative thinking across councils.

Here are a few themes that emerged:

Choice of language is important

Phrases such as “the underrepresented”, “the seldom heard”, “the hard to reach” are seen as outdated and unhelpful euphemisms. Participants agreed that describing people and communities like this can be disempowering and absolves responsibility from building meaningful relationships. As Danielle Simpson from Pembroke House and the We Walworth project in Southwark reminded us, it’s usually best to just say ‘people’.

Embrace local knowledge

Cllr. Claudine Pearson of Snitterfield Parish Council reflected on how councils often already know where people are and how to reach them. They just need the courage or permission to go directly to those spaces or organisations and seek a relationship.

Community engagement is everyone’s job

Councils that are doing this well understand that every interaction with the public, from customer service counters to refuse collection, is an opportunity to engage. A community engagement team isn’t there to do all the engagement but to help foster good practice across all services. In the Royal Borough of Kingston, Fiona Tarn worked with academic Professor Maria Chatzichrisodoulou and storyteller Richard Neville to transform libraries from service delivery sites to spaces of genuine community connection through storytelling. They demonstrated the value of having conversations in themselves, not driven by outputs but outcomes.

The aim isn’t consultation, but empowerment

Engagement is a reflective process of building power among people to come together and tell their story. It isn’t something that is “done to” communities or an exercise in extracting information. Doing this well might mean, as Rebecca Towers from London Borough of Southwark said, ‘we need to build new tables around which everybody can sit’ rather than relying on consultation mechanisms we have inherited.

Giving power away is scary, but worth it

Ranjeet Kaile, Executive Director of Communications and Engagement at South East London ICS, opened up about his fear as a senior leader in giving up a degree of control over the South London Listens project he managed. But trusting people paid off and generated a huge amount of buy-in and innovation from the local community.

Genuine partnerships lead to genuine results

From South London Listens and We Walworth, to Kingston’s asset-based storytelling project and Snitterfield’s ’Design in a Day’ – projects work best when people can escape their organisational silos to work with local communities and external partners to imagine “what if…?” Combining forces and talents leads to more authentic engagement. They are, as one participant called them, our ‘sparkplugs’.

Engagement should be fun!

Tony Cottam, previously of Bolton at Home, observed: ‘people sometimes talk about innovative community engagement and then do fantastically dull things and wonder why nobody engaged.’ A serious commitment to fun can generate the best quality engagement – as Katy Rubin’s ‘joyful and accessible’ use of legislative theatre which brought people together to discuss difficult issues.

We’ll be publishing further case studies on the LGA’s website, and we will be holding two further workshops with our bright sparks to explore these themes further. But for now, you can find more inspiration and information about our speakers’ projects below.

Photo credit: WeWalworth, ‘Adam and Tina from East Street Market‘.

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