Overcoming challenges to community power

April 12, 2021   By Craig Morbey, FutureGov

FutureGov’s Craig Morbey reflects on the most common challenges that councils face when trying to implement community power approaches and how to overcome them.

We were proud to be involved in New Local’s Stronger Things event last month, coming together with hundreds of dedicated public sector leaders to discuss and share learnings on the importance of community power.

The event was a real celebration of the belief that people should have a say over the places they live and the services they use. 

From day one, the (virtual) room was buzzing with energy. Who wouldn’t be inspired by community power after the year we’ve just had? The speakers and attendees possessed a passion and an urgency that was energising. 

Attendees clearly felt that there’s never been a more important time to work alongside communities to make change happen. Whether it’s the impact COVID-19 is having on people’s lives, our response to the looming threat of climate change, or rising inequalities, it’s clear we’re living in extraordinary and complex times and we need to work together for our communities to survive and thrive.

FutureGov sponsored Stronger Things, and in support of this we ran a 30-minute workshop each day on community participation, as well as an hour long roundtable discussion on different topics. This gave us the opportunity to spend a lot of time with people, hearing feedback from the sessions and gaining a better understanding of the challenges the public sector faces. 

We were heartened by the levels of optimism we saw to work with our communities to create better places to live, work and play. Alongside that optimism, there was also a sense that while many believe in community power, they aren’t sure where to begin or how to make it happen.

In our conversations with people, we kept hearing three primary challenges:

  • How do we build relationships with communities based on trust?
  • How can we ensure our work with communities is inclusive? 
  • How do we get senior buy-in for this work?

We want to share some insights we picked up from the event and through our own work in this space to help begin to answer those questions.

Building relationships based on trust

There’s a real and tangible desire for public sector colleagues wanting to get to know their communities better; building relationships based on trust and respect that would lead to collective action.

We heard familiar questions around trying to understand which areas to focus on or how to make contact and build meaningful relationships. There’s a clear understanding in the sector around the importance of understanding local history, gaining knowledge about the local environment and demographics, discovering who is already providing and leading in that place and identifying the best methods to communicate with different local audiences.

This is all powerful data, but data collection alone doesn’t lead to change. To build meaningful relationships with communities, work had to be led by staff who deeply care about making a difference, who enjoy spending time with a diverse range of people and have the social skills to build rapport.

To maintain relationships with communities, we need to have the time and space to meet up with people. Trust will only come when communities believe the motivations of professionals are good and their actions can support positive change to happen. Work with communities can only move at the speed of trust, and when trust has been established, then out of these relationships collective action can grow.

We’ve seen the importance of building relationships in our own work in Doncaster, where we supported the council to work with communities to improve their own health and wellbeing. Through ethnographic research, we got to know residents, created a platform for crowdsourcing ideas, then supported residents to develop and test their ideas.

Inclusive work with communities

Attendees felt strongly that it’s important every community and citizen has an equal opportunity to participate in their community life and that no one should be excluded. There was a recognition that too often, the public sector can engage with the same or similar people and voiced a very real desire to work with citizens that are genuinely representative of the community.  

There was agreement that organisations need to be proactive about identifying groups who might be socially excluded, designing better policies, strategies and services to increase inclusion and access. It’s not easy, but it absolutely can be done by using the knowledge and skills that exist within public sector organisations. Data sources can support the public sector to understand the demographics of a community, giving insight into the groups they should be engaging with. But then, it’s about identifying the barriers to community participation and putting in place a plan to overcome them. These could be barriers such as cultural restrictions, language, lacking confidence, bad previous experiences or belonging to a group that has previously been excluded from decision-making.

Participants felt there are no shortcuts. However, for all of the barriers that exist, there are a range of solutions which can be put in place to increase participation from groups who have previously been underrepresented. 

We saw the importance of inclusion when we worked with the Young Foundation and Tower Hamlets Council, a diverse borough in London. To bring residents together we discovered their skills and talent, developing community-led activities that improved their quality of life, including setting up women’s exercise class, football and careers support for young people and community-led language classes. 

Senior buy-in

We heard from attendees that for community power to be successful, it requires politicians and senior leadership in the public sector to come together with mutual agreement for a long-term vision. Without that mutual understanding and collaboration, we will continue to see pockets of good practice, but we will not be able to achieve the large scale systemic change we desire and desperately need.

To achieve this, we need courageous leadership. A different approach to doing things and leaders who genuinely want to embed new ways of working. 

But how do we get buy-in from the politicians and senior management? This was a common question we heard at Stronger Things. I believe in this, but how do we make them believe in it?

The answer was that there’s no easy answer. Every place has its own unique challenges, history and context that changes the approach. The best place to start making the case for change is in identifying the stakeholders with power and influence, getting time with them to understand their perspectives and concerns, and working with them to effectively explain the benefits of working closely with communities. 

In Blackpool, where we’ve recently worked with the council to develop and deliver a climate Citizens Assembly, senior buy-in has been crucially important. Opening yourself up to direct engagement and influence from residents requires confidence from both political and administrative leadership, something we were fortunate to have from Blackpool. At our first assembly, the leader of the council welcomed attendees, and throughout, the lead member for climate change was present to hear recommendations and make comments. Officers from across departments engaged productively in the process, trusting residents to be able to understand complex issues and make recommendations that were achievable and appropriate. This helped get further buy-in from other leaders and supported building trust with the community.

Making community power a reality

The team loved attending the Stronger Things event, and were so inspired by the vigour, decency and abilities of people we heard and met.

We’ve seen through our own work, and the work that was shared at Stronger Things, that the impact getting to know communities, having a plan for a place and empowering citizens can have on improving the quality of life for communities. We’re looking forward to working alongside our friends in the public sector to make community power a reality.