News and Comment

Are we having the right conversations with local people?

Friday 16 September 2011

I have lost count of the number of times over the years that I said something like this to residents taking part in a focus group or workshop:

‘That is a very interesting issue but it is not within the remit of what we have been asked to talk about today.’

A slight variation of this, but probably just as frequent is:

‘That is probably a matter for local NHS bodies to deal with. We are here to focus on what the council can do about this issue.’

In contrast I can easily remember how many times I have been asked to go out and find out what issues matter to local residents regardless of whose responsibility it is to deal with it. It happened once many years ago.

The person at the local authority who commissioned the work was intrigued to find out whether the issues that were important to her organisation were also the ones that mattered to local residents. I think she was also looking forward to attending her next local strategic partnership meeting and saying to her partners: ‘This is what really matters to local residents, while we can deal with some of this, these other bits are your responsibility.’

The fact that I rarely see a brief from a local authority or any other public body that is not tightly structured in terms of what the discussions with residents should cover makes me wonder whether we are really having the right conversations.

Discussing new ways to engage citizens

This is something which I hope OPM’s series of Local / Social / Digital events, in partnership with FutureGov and On Road Media, at the party conferences will be able to explore in more detail. The first is on Sunday, 18 September.

Book your free tickets to the Local / Social / Digital fringe events at the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour party conferences.

Here’s a short film about why we’re holding these events (which includes yours truly).

For those of you planning to attend, here are three questions:

  • How do we know where these conversations are happening?
  • How do we make sense of what is being said?
  • If you are from a public body how should you engage with those conversations?

I have to confess that I have not quite got the definitions and interplay between Local / Social / Digital straight in my mind.

At the moment, my feeling is that ‘local’ is partly about who sets the agenda for local conversations. In the past public bodies have usually set an agenda and then only listened to the conversations they have initiated. This new ‘local’ will be as much about listening to those conversations as participating in them or setting the agenda for new ones.

A main aspect of ‘social’ is about understanding the potential that exists in local communities to solve some of the tricky issues and concerns that are likely to arise from those conversations. There is no doubt that understanding social network analysis and being able to work with existing networks and weaving new ones will be vital to this.

And ‘digital’? Obviously it involves using the potential of the internet and other digital technologies to have those conversations. But a first step is that many in public bodies still need to recognise that ‘digital’ is no longer the preserve of geeks, or the middle class or younger people. It is now ubiquitous and needs to be seen as something that does not replace how we have previously engaged with residents, but that is another channel for conversations.

Yes, it is a messy world. But it is only by accepting that this is the new landscape that we will understand what the right conversations are, how we should participate in them and what we should be doing as public bodies.