News and Comment

Can a different kind of council website help build new collaborations with communities?

Monday 28 September 2015

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For years, most councils have been running consultations with their communities to find out what they think about services, what they want to see done differently, and increasingly what they would prioritise (and depriotise) in order to inform spending plans.

This is largely an exercise in research – in understanding what people think about their services, what they’d change, and when tough choices are on the table, what they’d protect and what they’d cut.

A lot of my work in the last couple of years has been about promoting another aspect of community engagement (and this is definitely engagement, rather than consultation). This work emphasises the value of co-design, whereby service users and citizens more widely help to shape what services look like. More than that, it also seeks to explore how outcomes can be achieved in new ways – perhaps involving a community group in delivering a service, or supporting a community to take on a project or an asset itself.

Increasingly we’re finding councils keen to open up these new sorts of conversations – with town and parish councils, with community groups or just with driven individuals who have a big idea. But councils can struggle with what this means in practice. There’s the obvious challenge of making time and resource available to nurture these local ideas when ever-shrinking budgets loom. But aside from that, there’s another simple, practical challenge of what an ‘ongoing conversation’ or ‘ongoing engagement’ really looks like, and how to enable it in a way that’s cost effective and which isn’t repetitive.

Part of the answer – though only part – could be a website like the one Devon County Council has recently launched:

Devon County Councul website home page

It was something they already had in the pipeline when we worked with them earlier in the year through the Cabinet Office’s Delivering Differently programme. As part of that programme, we helped them produce content for the website, reflecting on some of the local projects we had been involved in and sharing some of the tools we had used.

So who is this website aimed at?

The intention is that a Devon-based group or an individual with an idea for their area – or maybe just half an idea – can use this website to get started. Perhaps you feel there’s a challenge that needs addressing and want to get people together to work on a solution – here you’ll find tools for running engagement events. Perhaps you have plans for how to use a local building in a different way – here you can read guidance about taking on a building as a community asset. Perhaps you’re starting with a project but no venue and want to find out what buildings could be suitable – the website provides a map of council buildings, how they’re used and even how big they are. And wherever you’re starting from and whatever your project, there will be some sort of guidance, tools or local case study that’s relevant. That’s important because when people find this website, they won’t all be starting from the same point.

Isn’t all this material available already, somewhere else?

Some of it, certainly. Lots of councils already provide (very dry) lists of consultations that are currently live, and somewhere else they may provide local data profiles of their communities. National organisations like Locality and the Plunkett Foundation, meanwhile, provide some great advice, guidance and case studies on topics like supporting a village library or saving a pub. The real value of Devon’s community website is that it brings all these things together into one place, presented through a very local lens, and makes a very public, positive invitation to residents and local groups to start a journey of involvement.

And that positivity, coupled with clear, practical routes to shaping a proposal and submitting it to the council – is important. Sure, there’s also a cuts narrative behind all this, and the cabinet member’s introductory message doesn’t shy away from that. But you can’t easily frighten or depress people into getting active – much better to inspire and energise, which is what the website’s local case studies do, from the youth club in Ottery to the book shop in Crediton.

Positive and practical routes to involvement

I personally would have gone with a  diffent tag line for the website – ‘helping communities to help themselves’ has something of the Victorian moraliser about it. But overall this website positions itself well as a different kind of local authority resource, combining warm words on co-production with practical routes to involvement – local data to inform your case, tools to engage your neighbours, buildings you could enquire about and guidance for making a proposal. I suppose it feels like a website which flings open a door on the sort of collaboration implied by the new Community Rights, rather than peering suspiciously from behind a curtain at County Hall.

What sort of response people will get from Devon County Council if they take up the invitations made here, I don’t know. Certainly a website on its own won’t mean much if in practice, it’s not followed up by a willingness or ability to support those ideas and proposals that emerge. But as a repository of useful information, an exercise in openness and a statement of a council’s intent to be collaborative and creative about its assets and services, it’s a good start. Maybe every council should set up a site like this as one strand of that ‘ongoing engagement’ we all keep talking about.