How to become more community powered – 3 starting points

November 2, 2021  

Simon Kaye and Grace Pollard share the initial findings from our new project on putting community power into practice. By looking at what’s worked for other councils, they find three starting points for your community power journey: using shared imperatives, prioritising culture not structure, and understanding your context.   

Community power is an idea that is gathering momentum.

We’ve produced a raft of research showing why its so important for the future of our places and services.

But what does it look like? And how do we actually make it happen?

We’re excited to introduce a major new project focusing on the ‘how’ of community power.

This project will be informed by practical insights and learning from our research, our network, and our practice work with public sector organisations. In the end, we plan to create a resource to support councils’ development of community power in practice.

Becoming a community-powered council

What makes a community-powered council? This table shows what it might look like to shift from default, status quo norms to new ways of making decisions.

Designing and delivering services, collaborating: all informed by the principle of community power.

The left-hand column sets where many councils might currently find themselves: operating within the constraints of the current system, and strongly incentivised to avoid risks and work in a closed-off way.

But many councils are increasingly recognising the need to shift towards the right-hand column – becoming a community powered council – and so reboot their relationship with their community and place, build understanding and legitimacy in the face of major challenges, and work collaboratively so that those using services can help to improve them.

We’ve written lots about why an organisation might want to move from the left-hand column towards the right.

But we also know there is huge appetite to think more: not just about why, but also how to do this.

In other words, about all the hard work that actually happens in the line between these two columns.

The process is a lot messier than our simple table here can show:

  • Change often happens incrementally
  • New approaches are tried out in one part of an organisation but don’t spread further
  • Political will comes and goes
  • Unforeseen emergencies make plans impossible or force change at speed.

The story of becoming more community powered varies enormously from place to place.

Community Power in Practice will explore the big questions and dilemmas that lie behind how this change happens.

  • What was the catalyst for change in different organisations?
  • How did the change-makers go about their work?
  • What obstacles did they run into, and how did they overcome them?

We will look to identify the common threads of experience, the learning and the questions that could help other organisations looking to adopt community power.  

3 initial findings: what’s working for councils

In the spirit of sharing learning throughout this project, here are three initial findings from our work with councils at the forefront of community powered practice.

What principles or values do they share? What is helping them truly work alongside, and empower, their communities?  

1. Shared imperatives help make change happen

It makes a difference if a whole organisation – and a whole place – can be galvanised behind a clear, self-evident set of shared priorities.

This is something that we consistently see in councils that are embedding community power, because it ensures that the project is not contained to a core group of ‘believers’ with sole responsibility for driving the necessary changes.

Instead, everyone from senior leaders to frontline teams can see the underlying need, and change-makers can take their whole organisation – and their whole place – with them.

The experience of the pandemic is a perfect example. Whole organisations and local partners were united around the same goals: priorities whose urgency was unequivocal. The result, in so many places, was a proliferation of community power.

2. Culture usually beats structure

It is easy to get hung up on bad structure as our sector’s bogeyman.

As our table shows, councils are strongly incentivised – by our centralised country, our regulatory systems, and more – to function in a hierarchical and paternalistic way.

It therefore stands to reason that we need structural change within councils and across the whole national system.  

Yet many people we talk to are understandably wary of facing ‘yet another’ transformation exercise – because they have been through a lot of them before.

In some places it seems that, every few years, there is an attempt to address chronic challenges by shuffling personnel, merging or splitting teams.

At the end of all this activity, the structure may have changed but the system, culture, and conditions remain the same – and the challenge persists.

We are finding that so much is possible – even within existing structures – for an organisation which is focused on fostering the right kind of culture.

There are examples across the country of councils working in dynamic, collaborative, innovative ways – pushing up to the edge of what is possible given the constraints and regulations they face.

In so doing, they help create the evidence base that shows that other ways are possible and desirable – enough to inform structural change in the long term.

These councils did not need to once again restructure themselves, or wait for the national picture to change, to start becoming more community powered.

But how do you create the conditions for a culture shift? This in itself a challenge that we are putting at the heart of our new project.

3. Context is crucial – but that doesn’t mean you need to reinvent the wheel

This is an interesting tension that we grapple with. We know that every place is different, and that organisations need to understand and work in their local context.

This is why we aren’t trying to write ‘the community power manual’ or ‘community power for dummies’! One size really doesn’t fit all.

But what we’ve learned from our network is that it is wrong to leap to the conclusion that, since context is key, there is nothing to be gained from outside perspectives and from sharing ideas.

An approach cannot simply be transplanted, wholesale, from place to place. But the process that led to it, the impact that it has – these experiences could provide insights for everyone, while also making clear that there are real alternatives to the status quo, and that community power really does work.

How you can help

Here at New Local we are always learning more about community power and its potential to transform public services. We’re ambitious to share this learning and help big ideas to grow in practice. We cannot achieve this alone.

As we start out on this new project, we would love to hear from you about your experiences, and about any big practical questions you have about becoming a community powered council.

We want this work to be relevant to what people are doing, whatever stage they are at. Whether they are just beginning to look at the potential of community power, or old hands who are ambitious to put it at the centre of their organisational approach and values.

And we want this whole process to be open, engaged, and iterative. We will be writing about this project as it develops over the coming months: sharing what we are hearing and testing out our reflections and learning.

If you have ideas, questions, comments, suggestions, or examples that you think we should be looking at, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with one (or both!) of us:

Simon Kaye skaye@newlocal.org.uk – twitter: @stkaye

Grace Pollard gpollard@newlocal.org.uk – twitter: @Grace_Pollard1

Find out more about Community Power in Practice

Photo by Cool Calm Design Lab on Unsplash

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