Councils need to learn to step back, as communities increasingly step up

September 13, 2018   By Pawda Tjoa, Senior Researcher, NLGN

The relationship between councils and communities is shifting. The traditional role of the council as primarily a “service deliver” has diminishing impact in a context of reduced budgets, rising demand and shifting public expectations. There is increasing recognition that council role needs to become that of an “action enabler” – not always directing or leading, but instead increasingly supporting individuals, preventing problems occurring and unblocking barriers for communities to address their own priorities in their own ways.

This might sound obvious in principle, but the shift is harder to achieve in practice. Old habits die hard and the traditional paternalistic mode of operating is underpinned by a large bureaucracy that has multiple procedures and which sometimes produce mixed messages. In turn, councils have statutory duties to all their residents, and communities themselves can have competing priorities or inconsistent engagement. So how can we ensure a genuine shift in which councils can confidently step back, and communities can increasingly step up?

Our new report Rebalancing the Power, supported by Local Trust, identifies five principles for a successful relationship between councils and communities. The research takes the Big Local scheme as a case study to consider how the power dynamics can be recalibrated in practice. Funded by the Big Lottery and managed by Local Trust, Big Local involves grants of at least £1.1 million to 150 communities which have previously typically been overlooked for Lottery and other funding. Given that these communities themselves have direct control over how to spend this significant new resource investment in their neighbourhood, new relationships with the council have been catalysed. The experiences of Big Local areas provide new insight into how that shift might occur more broadly elsewhere, and this research extracts the lessons of this.

Our report distils five key operating principles which should support how councils – both members and officers – and communities themselves could establish and run successful joint endeavours in which communities themselves play an active role, supported but not directed by the council. They are:

  1. Be inclusive and treat all parties with respect from the start.
    A constructive relationship begins with a mutual recognition of each party’s objectives and the value each brings to the table. This means that each party needs to respect the unique role and expertise that each offers – often communities or neighbourhoods themselves have valuable insight into their own situation that can be overlooked by skilled professionals that don’t live there.
  2. Find ways to reflect a changed relationship which clearly set out the roles that different parties play, mutual priorities and areas with some level of flexibility.
    Continual and active steps need to be taken to build trust. Identifying at the start mutual objectives and values to focus on in the long-term can help. Councils can build trust with communities by securing early wins and by identifying clear ‘deliverables’, rather than over-ambitious promises that are not followed through.
  3. Agree how different parties would like to communicate in the future and build this into the relationship from the start.
    Ongoing dialogue and honest communication should actively maintained. Effective communication involves identifying which key individuals that need to be kept in the close regular contact and which require less frequent updating.
  4. Seek to develop empathy for each other’s position and be prepared to compromise on certain issues to achieve the best outcomes for the whole.
    Being flexible and adaptable is necessary to respond to unexpected circumstances in a creative way, and this will allow different parties to work effectively and balance different agendas and priorities.
  5. Foster a shared sense of endeavour by agreeing small actions that can be delivered together to build trust, and then scale up successes incrementally.
    Shared ownership and clear accountability between the council and community is necessary for a genuine partnership to be established. Councils need to think about the lasting impact of projects and take actions to sustain the immediate impact and behavioural shifts for the future.

As with any relationship, a positive partnership takes time and perseverance to develop. The real opportunity to grasp is a genuine shift in which communities themselves feel in control of what matters to them. This moves beyond traditional transactional interactions with the council as provider and community as recipient – into a relationship based on a shared sense of mission and ambition.

Pawda Tjoa is Senior Researcher at NLGN. The report, Rebalancing the Power: Five principles for a successful relationship between councils and communities, is available to download HERE.

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