Making community power business as usual: How to learn by doing

March 11, 2024  

New Local’s senior practice lead Catriona Maclay explains how Barnet Council is supporting staff to embed community power across the borough and shares six lessons from the journey so far.

In 2022 New Local member Barnet Council introduced a new Community Participation strategy, setting a vision for putting communities at the heart of everything they do. But turning this way of working into “business as usual” for busy, stretched service delivery teams can be a big ask. The council heard from staff that they needed some additional support, and turned to New Local to develop an easy-to-use toolkit to help embed the skills needed for the new strategy, building on the excellent practical guidelines and policies they already had in place. But this presented a conundrum: we know that embedding community power means having the support and confidence to experiment with new approaches, take risks, develop bespoke solutions and navigate uncertainty. How do you turn that into a toolkit?

As we spoke to staff across Barnet and learned from our member councils across the country, some key principles emerged which are now at the heart of the new toolkit:

Start with why

There’s no need to theorise about why communities might want to get involved – they can tell you themselves. The council decided that the best guides to good community working were Barnet residents who had already been involved in shaping their work. Throughout the toolkit, staff can hear the perspectives and experiences of residents who use their services or help develop their approach. Councils developing their own resources should always consider how to build community voice into staff training from the start.

“It’s important to involve people like myself – members of the public – because those are the people who are affected by whatever decisions the council makes.”

Alan Kummer, Barnet resident

Meet the moment of need

Council officers across the country are both keen to learn, and very stretched. Through our user research we heard from staff in Barnet that they often needed quick-fire support in specific situations. Those “moments of need” created the structure for the whole toolkit, while still building towards a longer term-shift in working styles.

Examples of toolkit sections

Making decisions without right answers

One of the toughest changes to make in process-laden and hierarchical institutions like councils is supporting staff to navigate new types of work without a fixed template. Together with the council we decided that rather than focusing on answers, we’d focus on the key questions which staff should be asking themselves as they built their community participation activities. As we put forward in our Community Paradigm report, this way of working only functions in a supportive management culture. Building on that, managers can embed regular reflection points to grow teams’ confidence in developing new activities.

Examples of prompt questions within the toolkit to encourage reflection

Make it real

The best way to make community powered working seem tangible and realistic is through examples. Happily, as we know from our member councils across the country, there are plenty of pioneers experimenting with new approaches and sharing their learning as they go. We chose examples from both within Barnet and across the country which show that participation can be applied to almost all areas of public service. From co-production in Barnet to planning in the Test Valley, and consultative “escape rooms” in Surrey to power-sharing in Essex, we found examples to bring to life some of the issues that staff most wanted to hear about.

“No wheels were reinvented in the making of this toolkit”

There are already brilliant resources created by others in core skills like facilitation or inclusive event planning. The community power movement – as our network of councils shows – is full of innovation and good practice which can be shared and replicated. There’s no need to start from scratch.

Finish with why

We practice what we preach, and will leave the final comment to the residents of Barnet.

Barnet residents explain why they think community participation is important. Video produced by Summer Simpson.

This kind of reflective, inspiration-focused approach to development can’t exist in isolation, and it doesn’t replace other important types of officer support. In addition to its public-facing toolkit, the council of course maintains additional guidance about statutory processes and safeguarding. But councils should consider their role in supporting staff to grow new muscles – and sometimes rebalancing how different muscles work together.

Barnet’s Community Participation Toolkit has only just been launched, and while initial feedback has been positive, the council will iterate and develop its approach as users get to grips with what support they really need. We’ll continue sharing our work on community-powered learning, and would love to hear other great examples from councils experimenting with approaches to community-powered staff development. If you are looking to build support for staff either through our wealth of existing resources for New Local members or with bespoke support, do get in touch.

Join our mailing list