The time that we spent last year grappling with the notion of community engagement and ‘value for money’ is standing us in good stead at the moment. We wrote it up and posted it on our website where it was spotted by Sue Groom, Neighbourhood & Community Services Director at Severnside Housing. Sue was drawn to the notion of being able to identify and articulate the value of Severnside’s Neighbourhood and Community work in a way which spoke to different audiences. Consequently we have been working with Sue and her team to develop a framework which, once complete, they will be able to use how they choose. Part of our remit was to create something that was not dependent on outside help for future use and, although it is just at the testing stage, we believe we have achieved just that. More news to follow…
This is a true story which illustrates what we were talking about in our last post.
Householders on a residential street were in conflict over the placement of a new bus stop and shelter. The rumour going around was that the original proposal ‘to locate the stop and shelter in front of number 46’ had been opposed by the householder at 46 and so it had been moved to a site outside number 72.
The residents at number 72 opposed this ‘new proposal’ vehemently and were joined in their opposition by neighbours on either side and for some distance up and down the street. Conflict arose between the resident at number 46 and a large number of householders in opposition to the revised plans. This conflict persisted for some time .. until it suddenly stopped. The deciding factor was a facilitated meeting of residents, with support for number 46 to attend. Discussions ensued and it transpired that number 46 had ‘good reason’ to oppose the original location for the bus stop and shelter – they had already applied to have a disabled parking bay in front of their property and were awaiting the results of their application; all they had done was bring this to the attention of the Transport Officer and left it at that – there had been no petitioning, no lobbying, no active opposition.
As it was, the residents discussed various options and concluded that the proposed position, outside number 72 was indeed the most appropriate. The residents of number 72 were in agreement and could see some other advantages of this position. The plans proceeded unopposed! Residents on the street recognised that they had jumped to some conclusions and felt the benefits of the discussion and joint decision-making.
While we were in the midst of delivering a series of one-day community engagement courses for The Wildlife Trust some years ago, we suddenly realised that we couldn’t train on ‘community engagement’ without putting a real practical emphasis on the ‘community’ bit – and getting to grips with what that means in different contexts.
One of our participants was asking why she repeatedly struggled to engage local residents in a green space project. She had gone door to door and asked people about their level of interest and received a generally positive response, but nobody ever turned up to take part in arranged activities. This account prompted the following story, to try to explain what was happening:
“As a neighbourhood example – imagine a street of 16 houses. You want to gain an understanding of the issues and ideas for improvements from the local ‘community’. If you knock on all 16 doors you may get a general idea of common dissatisfaction around street lighting or rubbish collection but if you dig deeper you are likely to get up to 16 different responses about bigger issues and frustratingly conflicting suggestions for ways forward.
In this example, there is little or no existing ‘community’ – imagine if you brought the 16 households together to discuss their ideas and suggestions – provided a forum for them to work together to agree the major issues and the most promising way forward – with knowledge about how your agency could support the work … you will get much more coherent, ‘sophisticated’ and workable information and a relationship will have started to develop. There is also much more onus on you to be very clear about why you want to engage with this neighbourhood in the first place and recognition of the skills required to do so.
Crucially, community engagement is about ‘communities’ – not about individuals. One assumption is that communities already exist and are just waiting to be approached and ‘engaged’ but just because a statutory agency may identify a particular community or neighbourhood – doesn’t mean that the people identifying as that community, or living in a particular area, have any collective understanding of the issues you want to prioritise or the primary needs of their area”.
If you are interested in the challenge of illustrating the value for money of community engagement then you could check out our webpage on community engagement
Here is some feedback from participants on our Take Part (Active Citizen) Learning Programme – for me it makes a strong case for recognising the particular skills needed to really make a difference in our current climate of localism – how to make the best of it. All of this has come back a bit since a recent visit to Holland to discuss Democratic Dialogue. The programme has been run very successfully with women who are interested in becoming more active in community (and public) life. It consists of 9 days, a residential and ‘field visits’ to the House of Commons and, where the budget is available, a valuable trip to the European Parliament in Brussels.
We asked participants what they had learned during the Take Part Programme, this gives a better overview of the course than we could ever hope to do!
Looking at our own communities and how we can become involved, standing up for them and making them better for everyone. This helped me to identify my own self in the community and how I can play a part in influencing the decision making process to my area a better place to live. Also how important citizenship is, how we are all part of ‘it’ and identifying what we are in our community (and country) and what role we have to play. This made me realise that I didn’t want to be an individual or active citizen, but a critical citizen, I feel that I want to stand up and make my voice heard and to play a part, collectively, in the decision making process.
I now know how important human rights legislation is and how it is able to stand up for everybody, regardless of who they are. How different charters of rights can be so different and also similar.
The course helped me to become a better communicator – realising where my weaknesses were and working on them and turning them into strengths. I said at the beginning of the course (I think even at the taster session) that I felt uncomfortable being a communicator, although I did identify my weakness of being too self-critical – always thinking that people listening to me were trying to find fault when really they were just listening. I believe that my communication skills have improved as the course progressed.
In group working I felt more confident as the course went on, being part of a group made me realise that each member is equal and we should encourage others to get involved and recognise and accept each other’s point of view. This became more apparent at the residential when we did a lot of work as small groups, identifying leadership and making group decisions, and how to work together. The ‘fantasy island’ exercise was a good example. Although this was great fun it had a serious side as it taught us how we would need to produce outcomes with limited resources by making collective decisions.
I know and understand more about becoming involved in making decisions and, in this session I identified 2 local organisations who I felt fitted into the examples given to us. The ‘X’ I considered was ‘The Clique’; and the ‘Y’ was the ‘Silent Consensus’ as I am a member of the ‘Y’ I now know that I have my part to play in making this group more influential and more forward thinking!
I am more aware of the structures of accountability in decision making (although some of those structures have already been abolished by the coalition government). I was surprised at how many levels there were and, at the bottom, what a long way up you have to go to influence more. One way of doing this effectively was by lobbying which I learned during the session on parliament. It was during this session when we watched live on TV at the case involving MPs and Lords being investigated for expense claims. I also found very interesting the relationship with the Houses of Commons and Lords and the Monarch – how this relationship had developed over time and how they are involved in the law-making process.
I also learned about leadership skills, what makes a good leader, how to be effective in leading a team, treating the group with respect and gaining respect in the process. This made me realise that being a leader isn’t about giving out orders but more about a leader of a group encouraging consensus, formulating decision making and standing by the decisions made and being supportive of the group.
I have appreciated during the course the importance of equality and equal rights. I have covered in my work this subject fairly well, but again this is something that I hadn’t asked myself about before and has made me realise how important this topic is within my community and beyond.
I believe, therefore, that I have become better equipped to enable me to be a better citizen. I have more understanding since I began the course and I have appreciated the way I have been encouraged to consider how I fit within the big picture that has become my community, country and the world”.
You can read more about our thinking on active citizenship here
A community development practitioner started a new job and was asked to work with a small isolated rural community which for many years had been viewed as a ‘difficult’ area by local professionals. She was told that people from that area/small council estate were ‘useless’ and didn’t have the energy or the motivation to get anything done on their own behalf – ‘they could not be trusted to bring crisps for a xmas party’
At her first meeting with the small group of locals who bothered to turn up to the very run down church hall, the door was locked and everyone just stood there waiting for the door to open. The new worker stood there and chatted along with the rest of them – and thought that maybe she could offer to go and find the key. However, she decided not to do that and thought that she would wait and see what happened next. After about half an hour someone said maybe we should go and get the key…and someone went off to get it and they all went in and had their meeting.
At the end of the meeting, someone suggested that they decided in advance who needed to get the key next time there was a meeting. From this small beginning grew a £0.5m new community centre and childcare project with the people in that community taking responsibility for their initiative.
They had been viewed as passive and dependant by local professionals and consequently had been ‘done to’ not ‘worked with’. All the power had been kept in the hands of the professionals.
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