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Community engagement: Building a partnership with residents in changing times

Engagement is the new comms, and everyone in the organisation has a role to play. David Evans, Director of The Campaign Company, explains.

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Key points

  • Have the courage to trust first – better resident relationships only come through letting down the drawbridge.
  • The more your speaking, listening and decision-making functions join up, the better you will be able to create a genuine dialogue with communities.
  • It is vital to understand the stories a place tells about itself in order to be fully engaged.

Post-truth or post-trust

On EU Referendum Day two years ago, a conspiracy theory went viral. It was based on the idea that election officials would rub out votes if they were in pencil. Popularised by the #UseAPen hashtag, ‘Pencil-Gate’ occupied the afternoon of 23 June 2016 – with publicly-minded voters even turning up at polling stations with spare biros.

The episode was forgotten in the drama following the result. But this footnote in the Brexit story helped explain the surprise outcome better than many other hypotheses. Beneath the phenomena of ‘fake news’ lay deep issues, to do with the failure of engagement and falling confidence in leaders and public organisations. Despite some Remainers’ conviction that the only explanation was a gullible public had been lied to, the result was less ‘post truth’ than ‘post trust’.

The blows to public faith in institutions which have caused this range from the banking crisis to Grenfell, and from Baby “P” to #MeToo. Though we should concede they have often been accompanied by positive changes at the same time – such as higher transparency, greater public scrutiny and lower deference – they have fundamentally changed the context.

For every person who is more cynical, another is more capable. Trust in government is rarer, but hierarchies are less acceptable. Social media has poured paraffin on anxieties, but it has also improved accountability. Citizens are increasingly unwilling to place their faith in others to decide for them, or to be passive recipients of policy.

Whether they are positive overall, however, the ‘post trust’ climate tends to make local government more challenging, both for politicians and officers.

Partnership with the community can be harder. Information is more often ignored or messages rejected. Changes are regarded with cynicism. Residents fear their voice is not heard and turn inward. Efforts to engage are seen as ‘tick-box’ exercises. Trust falls even if service satisfaction increases. The central premise of comms – that you develop a message and transmit it to an audience willing to listen – is undermined.

All of this is especially true when budgets are lower, with local authorities asking more of residents.

The courage to trust first

The tendency among all organisations is to batten down the hatches in this circumstance. Understandably, a hostile and unpredictable environment can make councils retreat into their comfort zones – or become more cautious in going beyond their remit.

Yet the best local authorities are those that fight this impulse. The successful councils have gone out into the community and engaged with the most alienated. They have asked for input before they needed it – rather than letting things reach the stage of a messy dispute. They have spoken personally to those angry in a consultation – or have contacted and listened to those commenting underneath a council blog. Or else they have genuinely devolved power or placed confidence in others – be it residents’ groups, backbenchers, parish councils or frontline staff.

In other words, they have taken the gamble that more democracy, not less democracy, is the answer. And, in almost all cases this has paid off, at least in the long-term.

When The Campaign Company wrote New Conversations – the LGA’s 2017 consultation and engagement toolkit, based on pilots at four authorities – we referred to this as ‘the courage to trust first’. But whatever you want to call it, the point is that better resident relationships only come through letting down the drawbridge.

This is why engagement is so important in re-building trust, and so central to the future of local government. The more communications, consultation and strategy overlaps, the more the speaking, listening and decision-making functions join up to create a genuine dialogue with communities. Doing this moves beyond a transactional connection between the authority and the community – based on delivery and outcomes and measured by service satisfaction – and towards a more relational approach, which builds the foundations of trust.

Key steps

All of the above is easier said than done, of course – and will be different at every council. But there are three key steps to making it happen.

  1. Embedding engagement within the organisation is vital. Engagement is the new comms, and the entire authority has a role to play. To get this right it’s important, firstly, to look at the strengths and weaknesses of your council’s ethos. This requires a clearly designated consultation team, who know their role goes beyond statutory consultation, and who sit alongside both the corporate leadership and comms teams – as three mutually supporting sides of a triangle. They need to build up institutional learning, and to see the first line of engagement as existing within the council – be it backbench and opposition members, or council employees working on the ground. As things stand, only a few of the best councils can claim to have a culture which is truly ‘engaged’.

  2. It is essential to establish two-way channels of influence with communities. Frontline staff and councillors are often overlooked in this or included too late. But it’s also important to systematically map networks and ‘assets’ in the community, including key community influencers, like publicans and barbers – as well as faith groups, clubs and community centres, business groups, parish and town councils, and other government agencies like community policing teams. Resident panels are one way of making sure this is representative. But the most important thing is that the infrastructure for this is initiated early – with channels of influence established before things reach the stage of crisis, controversy or impasse. These need to have the courage to actively seek out the most alienated or angry. Again, this often needs to happen within the council first, with the corporate and political leadership demonstrating the maturity to listen to and collaborate with staff on the ground.
  1. It is vital to understand your ‘place’. Beyond the conventional aspects of place, like economics and demographics, there are two central components of this: motivations and narrative. These feed off each other, but they often determine how communities respond to change, react to the council and relate to each other. To truly understand place, council engagement needs to understand the values and drivers which underpin surface-level behaviour. Organisations often go wrong when they assume residents share their own motivations. This clearly relates to the narratives around vision and place (for more on this see Harnessing the power of narrative to change lives). You may wish to challenge place narratives or to reinforce them. But either way, it is vital to understand the stories a place tells about itself in order to be fully engaged.

Trust in another ten years

In another ten years, relations between decision-makers and citizens will hopefully be stronger. Likewise, there will be better cohesion within authorities, and a greater sense of confidence and capability among citizens.

The success or failure of local government in becoming engaged, ‘thinking organisations’ will be central in determining whether this happens. Councils are uniquely placed to strengthen democracy. They have more direct dialogue with communities, and more initial understanding of what makes their places tick.

The long-term vision for local government and the wider public services must be that, by 2028, comms or consultation in the old school senses have become relics from the past – replaced by continuous engagement and fully reciprocal citizen relationships.

In striving for this, trust is the concept we keep coming back to. There is an immense opportunity, in an era of cynicism and uncertainty, for councils is to lead from the front. But the local authorities who really innovate and make this happen will be those who take the initiative. Rather than expecting trust to come to them, they will need the courage and integrity to really trust their residents to contribute to decision-making.

Further reading

  • What are the values and drivers of your residents?  One tool you can use is Value Modes