An introduction to community influence
The notion of community influence continues to underpin much government policy and initiatives:
Under the previous government we had Local Area Agreements, and a national indicator set which included NI4 (the percentage of local residents who feel they can influence decisions in their locality), under the current government we have the concept of Big Society (small state), Localism and devolution.
Following on from Local Involvement Networks (which replaced Patients’ forums), we are soon to have Local Healthwatch organisations, to “harness local involvement so that everyone can benefit from health and social care services that are fit for the purposes of the local community”.
‘Localism’ includes various community ‘rights’, encouraging involvement from communities in delivery of services, control of assets, planning and reviewing. At the local level, these new initatives have huge implications for the relationship between participative democracy (community-based activity) and respresentative democracy (Elected Councillors) when/if communities are ever in a position to take them up!
Our perspective on community influence
As some of the discussion above suggests, influence isn’t just a one way street. Whilst undertaking research to ascertain what communities can do to become more influential, it became increasingly clear to us that there was more to the story – including the need for public agencies to be open and receptive to that influence. The diagram below illustrates the complicated relationships between the different parties: communities, agencies and individuals. We call it a ‘whole area approach: model of change’, illustrating how change happens when active citizens and communities are at their most influential (being both empowered and empowering) and agencies are at their most open and responsive to that influence (also empowered in and of themselves and empowering to others).
Elected members are at the heart of this – firmly placed in the complicated position slap bang in the middle, being pulled in different directions by different pressures.
As the diagram above shows, ‘influence’ is interpreted – and understood differently – at different times, in different contexts and by different people.
It can be helpful to think about influence as being about attributes, methods and/or outcomes:
What helps us to influence
Ways we influence
What happens as a result of influence
Seven other approaches to influence that have emerged through our research are:
- Whispering – in the ears of influential people – private discussions which represent issues, opinion and priorities through a more influential ‘other’. Whisperers are the agenda setters – they don’t need to make any noise.
- Shouting – which could be about passion or about bullying or about frustration – it is not usually viewed as an effective form of influence but it can reap some reward.
- Negotiating – sitting at the right table at the right time, having all the information, skills and organisation you need in order to be an equal at the table
- Taking action – having a task and doing something. Making a direct impression – or contributing to a bigger vision.
- Being part of a bigger network – strength in numbers, division of labour and playing to each other’s strengths
- Shaming – drawing attention to poor decision making or embarrassing those who are not listening or taking account of people’s views
- Flirting – flattering egos, marketing and selling
Community influence takes these ideas further towards the notion of collective influence. Groups and networks often begin with individuals but, if it only remains with them, then:
- the group is more vulnerable to an individual moving or withdrawing
- decisions are less likely to address the issues of the communities on which they impact
- the group is less likely to achieve community development outcomes around community empowerment and well-being
- public bodies don’t ‘realise’ ‘community empowerment’ – they might get people’s views represented and change happening, but it is not necessarily about communities being empowered