How We Did It: Building intentionally inclusive community conversations

March 4, 2024  

Councils are looking for new and innovative ways to hear from their communities, and communities are looking for opportunities to shape the decisions and services that affect their lives.

We put Jo Fitzpatrick and Jim Leyland in our ‘How We Did It’ hot seat to hear how Wakefield Council had a Big Conversation with residents, training 100 ‘conversationalists’ to have over 1,300 face-to-face conversations with people across the district to find out what they like about their area and what would make things better.

How did the idea for the Wakefield Big Conversation come about and what were you hoping to achieve?

Jo: It came off the back of learning from the COVID pandemic in terms of how we work with our communities. We wouldn’t have been able to reach as many people with vaccinations if we’d not done things in a certain way or had the support of our community.

Wakefield Council wanted to develop a vision of how to involve people better in making decisions, engaging them right from the start of the things that we do. Moving away from the paternalistic “you said, we did” kind of relationship that we traditionally have with our communities, and testing out methodologies to achieve that. We commissioned New Local to do a report, and some key things came out of it around breaking down departmental silos. In the council people were working very much in isolation, and we had an ambition to achieve a wholesale shift.

It was recognised that this would be a long-term programme because culture change doesn’t happen overnight. So we decided to convene the Big Conversation. It wasn’t called that in the beginning. It was a blank piece of paper – how on earth do we achieve this? We’ve got a vision, but how did we get there? We started small, testing out ways of working and using a snowball technique so that instead of trying to do wholesale changes all at once, we used little bits of lots of people’s time.

We decided to reach out to parts of our community that we might not have reached out to before. Moving away from things like SurveyMonkey to going out and having real conversations with people.

How did the Big Conversation work in practice?

Jo: The first thing that we did was build a core team. It was a distributed leadership team involving people with varying experience and skills at different levels within the organisation. People from teams including communications, organisational development, community links and public health, so that it became a whole council thing, not just a public health thing.

We could have commissioned a company to go and do this for us, but we recognised that if we want true change, we all need to live it.

Jo Fitzpatrick, Associate Director – Population Health, Wakefield Council

We then developed how we would do the conversation. We wanted to build on what was already working rather than trying to invent something new. Our target was to speak to a thousand people and ask them: what do you value about where you live, work, or study?; and in 10 years’ time, what would you like to see? Sometimes people automatically say, well, it’s rubbish around here, but this really reframed the way that people thought about their area.

We could have commissioned a company to go and do this for us, but we recognised that if we want true change, we all need to live it. So, we recruited conversationalists from within. The core team all had day jobs, they weren’t recruited specially into the Big Conversation, and the same thing applied to the conversationalists.

They set aside a small amount of their everyday jobs to work on this, and they were trained in appreciative inquiry, how to steer conversations around from the negative spiral of doom into something more positive, to reframe people’s thinking without sugarcoating anything. They were also trained in inclusivity, including how to have conversations with people with neurodiversity, and recognising and responding to discrimination. So how to really handle the practicalities of having a conversation with a real-life member of the public, which sounds straightforward, but it was important to people.

The conversationalists were recruited right across the organisation, every department within the organisation had somebody volunteer to take part. They also came from other organisations. Our housing association, Healthwatch Wakefield and the NHS were amongst many that came forward. We linked in with our VCSE organisations so that they could connect us to community peer researchers and community COVID champions. We recruited people, provided training and set a target for having conversations with residents over the summer.

We took a data driven approach, aiming to talk to somebody from every postcode sector within Wakefield. We got ideas from our conversationalists and trusted individuals within our communities about where we could talk to people, particularly the seldom heard. People that didn’t normally come forward or the only time they engaged with the council was when they had a parking ticket or the bins hadn’t been emptied. We asked ourselves, how do we have a better conversation with those people? Who are they? And where are they?

We involved VCSE organisations as well as local businesses, because a lot of their employees are residents of the district, going to places like cake factories, bed factories and a business park that had lots of small startups. We also went into hairdressers and had a chat. It was about going everywhere and anywhere.

We looked at the data on a very regular basis to see where we were having the conversations and if there were gaps, either geographically or demographically. We’d then take a targeted approach to fill those gaps. We had daily stand ups, dedicating 10 minutes every morning to make sure we were still connected. There were also peer support groups with a mixture of conversationalists from different backgrounds where they could regularly share the good, the bad, and the ugly and keep the motivation going.

What did it feel like to go out and have those conversations?

Jim: I felt quite a few emotions. The initial conversations were a bit daunting because you felt a bit like you were selling energy or mobile phones. Humbling is another feeling I would describe because, through the nature of those appreciative questions, people told a story. And it was important to nurture that and really listen.

The initial conversations were a bit daunting because you felt a bit like you were selling energy or mobile phones.

Jim Leyland, Service Manager – Healthy Places and Communities, Wakefield Council

I remember going to Castleford, which is a market town in the district, and it was a summer weekend. There was a fete, lots of people were there and it was very vibrant. I was speaking to a chap in his early sixties, and he saw the council lanyard and wanted to talk about the parking tickets and the potholes and all the rest of it. But when I asked him what he liked about living and working around there, he reassured me within minutes of how proud he was to live in that community. Whilst there were issues, he was proud that his son was going to university, was proud that he’d come from that area and he liked living there. The whole dynamic of the conversation shifted from stifled and ‘council versus resident’ to one of not quite equality, but one that was more trusting and open.

The other person that really stuck with me is someone I met at a homelessness project. It felt very challenging at first – how do I ask somebody who’s homeless what they like about living around here? But I was asking everybody the same question, so I trusted myself to ask and the response again completely wrong footed me. The chap was in his thirties and had been in and out of prison. He said, I like this project because I get a meal three days a week. I like so and so because they’ve helped me sort my benefits out. And my feeling shifted to one of humility.

We’re talking about the art of conversation, but this is a bit more than that. It’s about really trying to understand people.

Jim Leyland, Service Manager – Healthy Places and Communities, Wakefield Council

These conversations have been powerful in terms of shaping not just services, but how we engage with people. We’re talking about the art of conversation, but this is a bit more than that. It’s about really trying to understand people and communities and the histories and stories that they have.

What impact has the Big Conversation had on the council?

Jo: We published an interim report called The Story So Far on what we learned through having those conversations. The primary aim of the programme was testing out a new way of working, but what people told us was very rich and it challenged some of our assumptions about our communities.

We put a bid into the Health Determinants Research Collaboration (National Institute of Health and Care Research) using what we’d learned through the Big Conversation, and we were successful. We now have funding for a five year programme to build capacity and capability to undertake community research, so we can then work together with our communities to inform better decision making using proper evidence from local knowledge that has been translated into a meaningful format.

It has also informed one of the strands of the corporate plan called Our Future Council, which again is about community participation and how we do that, which is going to mean Big Conversation part two. We’re laying down the plans for that at this point in time.

Jim: The power of speaking to people in communities to shape decisions about those communities is pivotal to my work on healthy and sustainable communities. There are 27 areas in the district, 10 of them are in the top 10% most deprived communities in England. They each have a population of between 11,000-14,000 and we are going to be working with all of them in a phased programme to address health inequalities.

We have started in four areas, inviting local community groups, VCSE organisations, elected members and statutory services to a series of workshops. These have involved using the joint strategic needs assessment, but in a very accessible way, to talk about the area and the community. The approach has been appreciative but also strengths-based. What’s really powerful is when you ask what’s already working, who the role models are and what facilities and groups exist, a whole tapestry of things becomes visible, and that’s very positive. We then focused on the gaps – who we’re not reaching, who doesn’t walk through the door in the community centre, and how this connects with health inequalities in terms of service provision.

This work links very nicely with the Big Conversation, but it also links with interdependent work with the health inequalities steering group that we’ve got in the area, and the development of the VCSE strategy. It’s not in a silo, it’s all connected.

We have used the workshops to develop how we make decisions, and this includes children and young people. We’ve spoken to over a hundred children by engaging with trusted connections, youth clubs and schools. We asked children what they want for the future of their community, and their dreams and aspirations aren’t unachievable. They include healthier eating, reducing vaping, more youth provision – very tangible things.

We’re delivering this through the Children and Young People’s Partnership in Wakefield, a jointly delivered partnership of statutory services and VCSE organisations, chaired by children themselves. Next month we’re running a workshop on the ‘so what?’ bit. These are the dreams and aspirations, let’s all sit down together to shape that decision making. It’s not a tokenistic gesture, it’s a genuine coproduced approach.

What are some of the challenges you faced and lessons learned along the way?

Jo: You can never talk about it enough. You can’t assume that everybody knows everything about it even though you might have talked about it to the nth degree and had your comms absolutely nailed.

I come from the NHS, so I’m really into ‘make every contact count’. That’s been the ethos of the conversationalists and the core team – whenever you see somebody, drop in the Big Conversation. Talk about what we’re doing because that’s the best way to get the message out there. This is a long-term programme of change. It’s not something that will happen overnight. So, manage expectations and maintain consistent messaging so everybody’s crystal clear.

People love to talk, and they love to be listened to. Don’t be fearful of going out and chatting to people. Don’t be afraid to ask questions because people will surprise you, and the process can really challenge your assumptions. I remember going to Pontefract Castle on Yorkshire Day. I was thinking to myself, people don’t want me from the council going up to them asking them questions when they’re having a lovely day off with their families. But actually, once I got over that and started chatting to people, they really wanted to talk, and they really wanted to be listened to. And they wanted to be involved in shaping our local district.

From the conversationalist point of view, people really enjoyed getting out from behind their desk, away from their computer screen and connecting with real people. The fulfilment they got from having those conversations was very powerful.

How We Did It’ sessions are exclusive to members of New Local’s network.

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