Caia Park community research: The role of gatekeepers in community-led initiatives

08 July 2021

Local people know their communities best. They know what issues they face, what their community does well, and the best way they can create change. As the impact of community-led initiatives has been brought to the forefront during the pandemic, our funded partner has been exploring how certain obstacles to delivery can be overcome.

Our funded partner the Local Conversation in Caia Park, Wrexham has conducted research working with Leeds Beckett University which explores how gatekeepers and community-led initiatives can work together to deliver change.

The Local Conversation programme is a flexible funding model which is led by what local people want. Our latest report demonstrates that this funding model has supported local communities to influence change and tackle inequalities within their local area. However, in Caia Park the staff and volunteers identified ‘gatekeepers’ as one of the obstacles they face in influencing change.

With training support from Leeds Beckett University, five people from the Local Conversation in Caia Park led on the research project. They conducted 10 interviews with project participants exploring the role of gatekeepers in community-led initiatives.

In the research project a ‘gatekeeper’ was defined as ‘someone who makes decisions on whether others can access services, support or funding’. Some of the gatekeepers identified were Councillors and MPs, Managers, Project Workers, Volunteer Coordinators and Youth Workers. These gatekeepers were identified across several areas of the local community which had interacted with the research participants in their community worker roles.

The existing perception at the beginning of the research project around gatekeepers according to one of the research coordinators, a project lead from Caia Park, was:

“Gatekeepers […] are like the elephant in the room when talking about community and social development. It is acknowledged they are a factor, but nothing ever seems to be done to address the issue. To have successful communities, the community must feel they have ownership and control. In far too many communities, gatekeepers foster a ‘them and us situation’.”

The research participants raised several obstacles regarding gatekeepers including inconsistency, poor management, lack of trust, lack of support and, lack of understanding about organisation structures.

Despite a lot of previous contact with gatekeepers being negative, there is an understanding that the roles are necessary and when done well they can protect the community from harm and ensure that projects are run correctly.

There is a strong body of evidence which demonstrates that people and communities need to have greater power over the decisions and actions that affect their lives in order to improve and maintain their health. The obstacles posed by gatekeepers reduce the collective ability of community groups such as the Local Conversation in Caia Park and individuals to create effective change.

Research participants highlighted several ways in which gatekeepers and community-led initiatives can overcome the barriers outlined. Participants said that “public transparency” has helped in the past as well as doing research to increase gatekeepers’ understanding of organisations and processes.

In line with the Local Conversation approach the research participants said that gatekeepers’ focus should be on making decisions with the community not for them. They also highlighted the importance of “proper training for [community project] volunteers so as they can fulfil the roles on a committee without the need for outside assistance or interference”.

Community workers and gatekeepers will inevitably encounter one another as community-led initiatives attempt to influence those in positions of power and achieve greater access to local services and resources. The research findings by Caia Park demonstrate a greater need for gatekeepers and community organisations to work more collaboratively in order for local people to achieve their aims. 

This research project conducted by the Local Conversation in Caia Park alongside Leeds Beckett University has had a positive impact on the group involved and has been used to influence actions within the Local Conversation. The research project was described as a return to grassroots working by beginning with talking to community members, and it was hoped that it could support a more bottom up approach in general.

The group has had wider discussions about the research and is looking at developing a training package to support community groups and individuals to identify and better work with gatekeepers.

One participant has since taken on a more active role in the group and is planning to stand as a candidate in the County Council elections in 2022.

The Local Conversation in Caia Park is funded by People’s Health Trust using money raised by Health Lottery Wales.

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