Community power: sounds great, but how do we do this?

March 21, 2022  

We spoke to TPXimpact’s Claire Hazelgrove about the importance of giving everyone a voice in change and the practical tips to help the public sector embrace community power.

When was the first time, or the most memorable time, that you remember seeing the impact of community power in action?

Claire Hazelgrove: It’s actually the very first thing I got involved with as an activist, which has really shaped everything I’ve done since, and that was the Make Poverty History campaign back in 2005. I remember feeling part of a community of campaigners, of people all around the country, trying to use our voices to make change happen that we really believed in.

The campaign was about dropping the debt, more aid, and trade justice – and the fact I can remember those calls to action so clearly now says a lot about the impact of that campaign.

Being part of that movement – a community of communities really – to say so clearly to the government at the time that “the public will is here and we want you to act” was exciting! And then seeing what happened when the political will was there as well – lives were saved, changed and improved because of that.

The bringing together of community power and political power was quite something. I was still at school back then, so this was before I studied politics, and I remember thinking “I don’t know exactly what this is, but it made a difference and it’s what I want to spend my life doing”. It has shaped everything I’ve done since.

Today, at TPXimpact I lead our work on community and political engagement – probably no coincidence it’s both!

You’re giving a ‘Lightning Talk’ at Stronger Things. What one thing are you hoping people will take away from it?

Claire Hazelgrove: That it is important and possible to put people’s voices at the heart of change, and that there are lots of ways to do it.

Right now, there are tough choices that need to be made in all our communities, such as how to recover from the pandemic locally and how to tackle the climate emergency in the right ways for that area.

The answer to these questions, and many others, won’t be quite the same in any two places, and so it’s important that local people, businesses and other local organisations are heard as these decisions are being made. There are some brilliant and inspiring examples of this out there.

The lightning talk will focus on some of this.

You’re also part of the breakout session, ‘Community power: sounds great, but how do we do this?’ What’s the big idea behind this session and what can people expect to dive into?

Claire Hazelgrove: At TPXimpact, part of our work is supporting councils, community and third sector organisations in engaging with their communities in new and different ways.

We know that people at Stronger Things will be hearing lots about why community power is important, and people who are there probably believe that already. But what we want to do is move from the what and the why to the how.

So for our breakout, we want this to be a quite practical session with tools to help you assess your organisation’s progress in involving local people in decision-making.

We’ll help you look at where your organisation is at right now – no matter where that is. This is very much open to people of all experience levels! It’s open to people from councils, from community groups, health and others.

We’ll share tips and best practice and you’ll be able to hear from like-minded people as you look at what the next steps are for you and your organisation on this journey.

What’s the biggest argument against change that you hear? How do you counter it?

Claire Hazelgrove: There are two common ones we find, and they’re very natural concerns for a council who haven’t done this before to have: a fear of a loss of control, and a fear of costs.

On control, the fear is that if you’re inviting people into decision-making it could just result in a wish list, with people prioritising things that just aren’t achievable or within a council’s powers.

To avoid that, it’s really important that in any process where you’re engaging people that actually you’re really clear on what you’re engaging them on – what is that question that you’re asking them to deliberate and discuss. You can set those guardrails around it. That also helps people feel confident and clear around what they’re signing up to.

On cost, starting small with a pilot can be really helpful. Learn from it and then do more over time, bringing your organisation’s leaders and others with you as you do. You really don’t need to start with a citizens’ assembly!

But also, it’s important to say that these processes can save money in the long-run. If you’re incorporating people’s lived experiences into shaping public services, if you’re understanding the barriers they encounter accessing services, then actually you’re more likely to get to the right, tailored solutions faster. The return on investment in engaging your community is vast.

And there are secondary benefits which are enormous – participation, democratic engagement, people being closer to their councils and one another, and developing new skills.

For example, last year we co-designed and facilitated Blackpool Council’s Climate Assembly. This was in the midst of the winter lockdown. We were helping people to take part remotely and even a year into lockdowns we found that people had never used Zoom (or anything like it) to see their family. After helping them take part in the Assembly, they then said to us “great, I now feel confident using this to speak to my relatives”. These things matter.

And apart from what you’re involved with, what else are you looking forward to at Stronger Things?

Claire Hazelgrove: I’m really looking forward to seeing so many liked-minded people in one space. I’m also looking forward to hearing inspirational stories and ideas from across the country and around the world. As a community of people who believe in the importance of community power, together we could really help more  people’s voices be heard more loudly in decision-making across the country.

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