Recently, central government has placed enormous importance on putting community involvement at the heart of everything councils and their partners do. This is because there are real benefits to be gained from engaging and empowering communities.
- Delivering better, more efficient services
- Better democracy and accountability
- Sustained improvements from regeneration programmes
- Strong, resilient and cohesive communities
- Improved partnership working
- Involving communities can help make partnerships more accountable
- Motivated staff.
Delivering better, more efficient services
Services can be more effective and efficient if they are based on what citizens and communities want. Where resources are targeted in a focused way, responding to the greatest areas of need, they can be used more effectively. For instance, community input can transform a blanket approach to cleaning an estate by targeting the biggest problems first, leading to a cleaner estate, satisfied tenants and reduced costs.
Conversely, not involving communities can lead to poor services and be very costly. Services designed without community input risk wasting public money because they will be unused or underused if they are not what people need. A couple of examples might be:
- recycling measures that are not consulted on and have to be changed a year later because they don't work
- a planning appeal that delays building a new school and therefore increases costs by millions, because residents' concerns weren't properly addressed at the outset.
Involving local people in designing and developing services brings greater creativity and innovation. For instance, engaging pupils in redesigning their school meals service ensures less waste. It also helps students understand the importance of healthy eating, which helps the council to meet health targets.
Successful community involvement works across the board for all community groups and so improves access to services for marginalised and vulnerable people.
Better democracy and accountability
Representative democracy and participative democracy, if working in tandem, can strengthen the democratic process. Councillors have various tools to find out what local people want and champion those issues. By getting people involved, councillors increase their accountability to, and credibility with, local communities.
Involving local people creates an increased awareness and understanding of how local democracy works. Informed and active citizens are more likely to consider standing for office as councillors or in other governance roles such as school governors.
In particular, creating opportunities for young people to become involved in decision making is a powerful investment that can lead to civic involvement throughout their lives.
Community involvement in decision making leads to increased trust in public institutions and improved satisfaction with public services.
Research shows that satisfaction goes up when:
- there is an increased feeling of neighbourliness and sense of community
- people feel safe and secure
- they feel they can influence decisions.
For instance, within the 20 neighbourhood management pathfinders, residents felt more satisfied with their local areas, and satisfaction with local services increased.
Conversely, many people feel they have little or no influence over the public bodies that affect their lives. Only about one-third of the population vote in local elections, and 41 per cent of those who do not vote claim it is because they do not think it will make a difference. Community involvement can address this disaffection.
Sustained improvements from regeneration programmes
Evidence suggests that top-down, professionally-led approaches to socio-economic issues such as urban renewal often fail to meet the expectations or needs of local people. Conversely, community involvement means that community members feel a sense of pride and ownership in something they have helped create.
Strong, resilient and cohesive communities
Community involvement creates stonger interactions between people, changing individuals' perceptions and improving their sense of belonging to the local area. When residents work together to solve local problems it avoids conflicts further down the line and promotes transparency in decision making about resource allocation. Overlooking involvement can result in conflicts over scarce resources, such as housing and jobs.
Community involvement encourages communities to take ownership and action over local issues. Forty-seven per cent of actions in community-led plans are taken on by the community themselves without any external support.
Community involvement encourages strong communities with strong local networks that are more resilient during times of crisis, such as the economic downturn. For instance, neighbourhood structures set up to involve and empower residents can provide a vital means during a flooding crisis for all to come together to support vulnerable residents.
Improved partnership working
A citizen or user viewpoint can drive collaborative working, and be a spur to joining up services more effectively. Many of the local priorities in a Sustainable Community strategy or local area agreement (LAA) will only be resolved if communities get engaged and contribute their knowledge and resources. Community involvement can address the issues that all partners are concerned with but none are solely responsible for, such as migration, sustainability, social cohesion, and inequality.
Involving communities can help make partnerships more accountable
By working together to engage communities and sharing their knowledge, the local strategic partnership (LSP) can reduce duplication and waste.
Engaging with communities connects local government staff with service users. Providing the opportunity to jointly design and deliver services gives local government staff a better understanding of the importance of the service to communities. It can also give satisfaction from a public service well done.