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Engaging with young people post-pandemic – West Berkshire Council

West Berkshire’s engagement officer noticed that the pandemic period saw a wider demographic range of people responding to council consultations, communications and initiatives than previously, including increased engagement from children and young people. There was a desire to harness and build on this increased engagement, so a range of initiatives were launched to educate residents on the council’s role and responsibilities. It also sought to encourage active engagement, including participatory budgeting and youth councils, with the intention of increasing awareness of what the council does in the local area and encouraging engagement with community issues.

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The place

West Berkshire is a unique place. Predominantly rural, often affluent but with pockets of less affluent places. West Berkshire is surrounded by other counties, and so often places feel more aligned to towns outside of the council area.

The challenge

The council had predominantly adopted a passive engagement strategy; seeking to inform residents through newsletters and engagement teams. As a result, the same demographic groups (e.g. those aged 55-75) often replied.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the council noticed that more people, from different groups, were replying and interacting with information, likely driven by people being at home with more time on their hands. The council wanted to capture this engagement, and established a new post – funded for one year – to do just that.

The officer began with looking at the Resident’s Survey, conducted in November 21. They had low take-up among those under 30, but had even less engagement from school age children. At the same time, the impact of the pandemic on these children was beginning to be seen. Children were appearing in many ways younger and struggling with basic skills having not had the normal learning opportunities.

The officer in post began connecting with communities. She visited places to proactively involve them with engagement. While there, she noticed that the dog poo bins were overflowing. When she asked why residents kept overfilling the bin when it was so clearly full, the reply was “it is the council’s job to clear up”.

The solution

The council sought to connect these issues with engagement, education and explanation of the council's functions by running a series of engagement initiatives with young people. The events sought to approach engagement in a fun way, which could help children learn underdeveloped skills such as teamwork and confidence building, whilst also provide an opportunity for the council to teach the children (and their parents) what the council's responsibilities actually are.

Youth Council for secondary schools. Gathering insights from other examples, such as Surrey and Hampshire, the council decided to adopt a very gentle approach to establishing a youth council. Schools are asked to nominate participants who are interested in learning more about the policy or deliberative processes involved at councils, or who would benefit from additional opportunities to develop skills. Projects were often given nominal amounts – such as £20, £30 for items such as litter picking – which participants could then take back to their schools and lead implementation.

Participatory Budget for primary schools. The primary school children, particularly the cohort close to secondary school, had particularly struggled with mandatory bubbling over the pandemic. To build the pupils’ confidence as they re-integrate with their peers, the council hosted two pilots of participatory budget; one class at one school, and three classes at another. Each were given £200 to debate, develop and put into action projects. One of the schools chose a memorial wall and bench for a pupil who had recently died.

The council also produced a children’s book on what councils do. Written in a fun way, setting out why the individual officer’s had the best job (and therefore what that job was), the council sought to reach to young minds, and their parents, by instilling in them what councils do.

The impact

The officer’s role has now ended, but another team has already taken the principles learned from these small-scale, but different, approaches to engagement and integrated them into work reviewing their inclusion and diversity strategy.

The total cost for the projects was less than £30k – and £66 for a gazebo to help with going out into the community.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The layered approach sought to fundamentally shift the public discourse around the council and resident’s relationship. People had become disengaged because ‘government’ (broadly speaking) have spent two years telling people what to do. While lockdowns may be behind us, the spectre of government doing things for people remains.

These approaches have sought to instill, at an early age, people finding their own solutions which are supported by councils. While much has been done at the local level, a national campaign around the role of councils and councillors would be helpful.

Lessons learned

  1. Be brave. Do bonkers things, and trust colleagues to go with it.
  2. Don’t presume.
  3. Be honest with senior people – but stand your ground. You will ultimately tell people things they don’t want to hear. Own it and don't allow them to challenge you on what you know to be true.