Achieving genuine local engagement

28 January 2016

What does that mean in practice? How does engagement, rather than consultation, ensure that communities are in control of decisions that impact on their lives.

At the Trust we firmly believe that local people should be at the heart of decision making when it concerns their community – they know the issues that affect their neighbourhood better than anyone else and are best placed to offer solutions. Genuine local engagement is a key requirement of all of our funding programmes. But what does that mean in practice? How does engagement, rather than consultation,  ensure that communities are in control of decisions that impact on their lives.

Jez Buffin, Principal Lecturer at the Centre for Citizenship and Community, School of Social Work, at the University of Central Lancaster who has been working closely with us to support neighbourhoods under our Local Conversations programme spoke at a recent People’s HealthTrust community practitioners networking event about why engagement is so important and some of the ways it can be approached. He explained that although this process of achieving genuine local engagement can look very different in each community, there are some principles around participation, co-production and  focusing on the community’s assets  that can  make it work on the ground.

The first thing to remember when working with communities, he said, is to expect the unexpected – you may turn up and think things will go one way but often they take a completely different route to the one you expected.
One concept he said is absolutely key is moving towards shared power over decision making about how resources are used, and identifying  solutions that meet local needs and aspirations. It’s important to recognise that people using local services are not just passive consumers but are people with assets, skills and experiences  that can be drawn upon and nurtured. There is a need to break down some of the barriers between people that use services and those that deliver them, so that local people actively shape what happens in their community.  

He talked about taking a strengths-based approach so that, instead of looking at the things that are holding residents and communities back and causing problems, we should look to what makes communities better. We can focus on the problems within an area or we can look at some of the resources it has and build the confidence of local people so that they recognise the gifts and talents they have.  Key to putting residents and communities in control is them believing in their abilities. Jez shared his view that one of the things that’s exciting about People’s Health Trust is that we have a real commitment to actually investing in local people - often you see that there is a requirement to consult with communities but there isn’t the same commitment to real involvement and real engagement and putting local people in control. That’s something that’s really quite different about this particular pot of funding.

Concluding his talk, Jez shared what he believes are the keys to success:

  1. Time – genuine local engagement isn’t a quick fix and we need to allow time for it. We are not going to achieve it in a few weeks or even a few months.
  2. Building relationships – one of the critical things that we need to allow time for is building relationships and confidence within communities so that people can start to find ways that they can authentically become involved.
  3. Finding one or two key individuals to get things moving – sometimes, for example in communities where there isn’t a lot of community spirit, it’s about finding one or two key individuals as a starting point.
  4. Use of language – it’s a case of unpicking things and avoiding jargon when explaining things to people. We can’t assume that people understand some of the ideas and concepts that we take for granted.
  5. Utilising what’s already there but also adding to it – time needs to be spent understanding the work that other organisations are already doing in a community.  We can use their networks, their events, their premises, their links.  But we also need to think about where the gaps are and take steps to try and fill these.
  6. Being committed to make it happen – you’ve got to be willing to stick with it and keep going when things get tough.
  7. Going the extra mile – don’t give up on people.  Pick people up or drop them off after meetings.  Text them to say thank you for turning up and that you valued their contribution.  If someone doesn’t turn up, call up to find out why. Spend time with people to find out what they thought about an event or session.
  8. One step at a time - we’ve got a process and we know we want local people to drive it but what the outcomes are, we don’t know.
  9. Training and capacity building - some local people won’t understand how they might contribute. They might not have been asked about what they want. They might not have worked together before and so they might not know how they can connect.
  10. Letting go – we learn by doing things so it’s important to let communities go their own way and make some mistakes and then support them in getting back on track.
  11. Politics and practicalities – there will be key people who will help to make this happen or who will get in the way. You’ve got to find ways of understanding what those politics and practicalities are, who those people are and how you get them onside.
  12. Keeping positive and believing it can happen – there will be things that go wrong and you’ve got to hold that positivity when people get into difficulties and have arguments.
  13. Keep asking questions and challenging yourself – it’s easy to keep doing the same thing because that’s what you’ve always done. Try to be as honest as you can with yourself – am I doing the right thing here, am I really giving them control?

David Jones, Director of Grant Programmes 

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