Avoiding the pitfalls of community power – 3 tips for councils

January 5, 2022   By Dr Matthew Wood

More and more councils are embracing community power – but making it work in a sustainable and effective way can be tricky. Drawing on his research into governance and the ‘politics of expertise’, Sheffield University’s Dr Matthew Wood shares three tips for councils aspiring to bring communities into decision making.

Sheffield is just one of various councils in the UK aiming to empower communities by reforming their governance practices to work more collaboratively.

The city’s new Committee system, approved last year in a referendum after years under the centralised leadership mode’, has been accompanied by a spark of interest in the city in ‘community empowerment’.

Sheffield’s reforms are just one example of a series of rounds of local government reform over the past decade, which New Local has contributed substantial evidence towards.

My research offers three tips on how to avoid some common mistakes during the reform process, and what approaches might be more productive, as practitioners search for ways of empowering communities while faced with high expectations, and limited resources.

The tips draw from a decade’s worth of research on governance reform at multiple levels: European, British and local governance.

I recently gave evidence to Sheffield’s Governance Select Committee to try to summarise this evidence, in helping the Council with its reform process.

My research has examined the benefits and drawbacks of delegating to experts, what public sector leaders view as effective improvements to accountability, and how to make it clear the reform agenda isn’t just a tick-box exercise, and that it really does empower communities.

1. It’s all political – beware black and white solutions

Attempting to impose one simple solution to a governance problem (to depoliticise it), is often doomed to fail.

Or, put in a slightly more nuanced way, politicians at any level can’t pretend they can wash their hands of political responsibility.

My research shows that creating new committees, policy units or agencies requires that politicians are involved: defending experts’ autonomy, giving them vital resources to do their jobs, or coordinating their relationships with relevant stakeholders.

This doesn’t mean they are taking away the autonomy of the experts – they are helping them to do their jobs.

Why does this matter for local government? Because in local government reform, elected local councillors often approach reform options as a zero-sum game of control or delegation.

Viewed in these simple terms, local services can either be:

  • a matter for politicians to control – they are the elected officials, they have the legitimacy
  • or they should be delegated for private sector firms or voluntary and community sector organisations to deliver – because they are more efficient, they know local communities, and so on.

This may seem like simple and straightforward choice, but it’s an illusion.

All these decisions are political, and will require constant involvement and oversight from councils, even if service delivery is the formal responsibility of other sectors.

A better approach is to view local government reform as about how councils are involved in co-producing services with businesses or voluntary and community organisations, not an either/or relationship.

Viewing service delivery in black-and-white terms stores up political problems to come back to haunt councillors in scandals, that occasion ‘blame games’.

It is vital to think through how to design inclusive collaboration between councillors and stakeholders to manage inevitable political conflicts, rather than drawing arbitrary and simplistic distinctions about who is formally responsible.

This also signals to communities, especially overlooked or ‘left behind’ communities, that councils are willing to be more inclusive.

2. More meetings aren’t a bad thing

Local government reform is often about who will be credible to deliver a particular service most efficiently.

Councillors want fewer meetings and more action. Less paperwork and better delivery on the ground. They don’t want ‘just more meetings’.

My research shows this is not an either/or question. In fact, colleagues working in public sector organisations feel politicians are more credible if they put more resources into reviewing evidence and information, rather than rushing to judge delivery.

Involving more relevant people in discussions about the best way to solve a policy problem isn’t creating more bureaucracy. It shows you are serious about addressing problems in an accountable way.

This is especially vital if you are addressing a multifaceted problem, like fly tipping, anti-social behaviour or Covid recovery. These are not simple problems, even within one city or local area.

Politicians are viewed as more credible by colleagues in the public sector, who have the connections with communities on the ground, if they put resources into gathering information and involving communities in meaningful discussions.

3. Making your engagement work more visible is a good thing

Councillors and officers in local government wonder how to empower communities. But then practitioners say they are already doing a lot of the relevant engagement work they need to do. Many meetings are held. People are incredibly busy. Why do we need to ‘reinvent the wheel’? Why should we work to service new institutions as opposed to real people?

My answer is that if you’re doing the work in a way that’s more visible, and connects with new reforms, it can be more effective. Visible means:

  1. Spending time working out what the real problem is
  2. Figuring how to involve relevant communities who are important to talk to in addressing the problem
  3. Involving them in a direct and meaningful way in collecting data on the problem
  4. Showing you are considering all the relevant evidence you need to make a decision that has institutional clout.

In a recent academic study I showed that holding public hearings to consider different types of evidence is a good way of doing this.

You can invite key community representatives, and academics and businesses to present their perspectives and data, and then go away to make a decision.

Live stream the discussions and hold them in slightly different places in the local area, so you’re showing you’re doing things a little differently. This is especially important for groups who are intimidated by political institutions, or don’t trust them. It helps them to genuinely influence the process.

Many local councils already do this. Sheffield City Council recently took the general council meeting ‘on tour’ to a different venue in the city and invited people who were affected to speak at the meetings. These are a good way to start.

Doing local government reform well

Deciding how to do things better in local government shouldn’t just be about considering technical details about the number of committees to be organised, number of meetings to be held, or whether there should be scrutiny of one committee over another.

There are much higher expectations about empowering communities.

My research tries to tell some hard truths:

  • beware of simple black-and-white solutions
  • take time to gather information and data from a variety of sources
  • and then hold visible public meetings to show you are serious about empowering communities.

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