News and Comment

We all want to grow community capacity – but are we trying to do it in the wrong place?

Monday 8 June 2015


How do we grow more engaged communities? How do we utilise the ideas, the skills and energy in our towns, villages and neighbourhoods in ways that make people’s lives better – and which enable our limited public finances to stretch that bit further? How do we open up different sorts of conversations and relationships between citizens and agencies, and how do we sustain those? How can councils help to surface and support the capacity around us?

These are questions that all local authorities have been asking – to a greater or lesser extent – at least since the Big Society debates appeared five years ago, and in some cases long before. They remain important questions, and ones which can be found at the heart of much that we are asked to do by councils and their partners. Discussing the answers – potential and partial as they are – involves thinking and talking about all the things you’d expect: the idea of councils as enablers and facilitators, not just service deliverers; the importance of coproduction and co-design with citizens; the value of taking an asset-based approach in tackling challenges and engaging communities, rather than focusing on gaps and problems, and so on.

These are all familiar and important features in the landscape of this agenda, and they are ideas that continue to interest and excite people across public services and community organisations, which is positive. But it’s a landscape that is busy and crowded, and I’ve been trying to think of some simple ways to visualise the challenge at the centre of it all – the thing that’s stopping us from making major leaps forward, and which keeps a lot of stuff broadly the same.

Bear with me, this is a work in progress – and I’m writing a blog post, not a treatise.

So I’m starting with this single, green circle – the collaborative sphere. This represents a community where neighbours share things – books, garden tools, skills, ideas and time. If enough people think that something needs doing, they get together and do it because they agree its worthwhile, and because they know and trust each other. This is a community characterised by cooperation, relationships, trust, sharing, and reciprocation.

The Collaborative Sphere

In the next image, we see the green circle framed by something else – the accountable, governed sphere. Here, there is a recognition that whilst life in the green circle can be wonderful, things can go wrong. Decisions can be made in hap-hazard ways, or based on the whims of a few noisy individuals rather than the evidence of what would work best for the many. Moreover, people new to the community or those who are weakest may not get heard. The yellow, outer-circle therefore exists to keep things fair and safe and transparent. This is the world of process and procedure and accountability – things which can be very important not only in helping to reach sound decisions but proving that they’re sound.

Accountable Governed Sphere

Against this familiar backdrop, councils and their partners are increasingly interested in how they can grow the capacity of their communities – to build resilience, to enable and empower, to involve citizens in shaping new responses to local challenges and new ways to achieve better local outcomes.

But too often, I would argue, they are trying to do that from within the governed sphere – the world of consultation processes and public meetings, of steering groups and strategies. These things can all be important, but they’re not fertile ground for growing a more active, positive, networked community. Getting people to care, to take part, to start sharing ideas and taking action is much more effectively done in that green circle of collaboration.

And so we end up with the third image – a world in which we all ‘get’ how valuable community participation can be, but which our public  bodies try to nurture in the wrong place. We close down what could be creative, positive conversations with tightly formulated questions about how a service works or doesn’t work; we deter the mass of people from getting involved whilst satisfying a dedicated but often tiny core of consultation-responders and meeting-attenders; we make everything about generating an action plan or a strategy before we’ve invited people to do the most important thing of just coming together and talking and sharing and having a go at something.

Accountable Governed Sphere 2

Think about the most inspiring and successful examples of community involvement – from the local one-off projects to save a pub or reopen a shop through to movements like Incredible Edible. A lot of the activity that powers these projects takes place in that collaborative sphere, where people are excited and impassioned, where they build networks with their neighbours in order to make things happen. At some stage some activity has to move into the outer-sphere for all the reasons we’ve talked about – to make sure what they’re doing is safe enough, and fair enough, and a good use of public resources if and when those are required. But for the most part these projects do not live or grow in that outer-sphere – and had they moved over too soon, they would perhaps have run out of steam and reached a premature end.

And yet, too many of us in too many organisations continue to try building public participation in that outer-sphere. It’s what many officers, councillors and even chairs of community groups know best. It’s safe. It’s ordered. It’s efficiently directed at a specific topic or problem: ‘Tell us, community, what do you want us to do – option A, B, or C? Leave your comments in a box by the door.’ Or ‘Fill in our survey and tell us what matters to you so we can go away and work on it’. The outer circle may be safe and ordered, but it can also be a very passive space for citizens, a very dry and uncreative space, and a space which we hastily fill with the wrong questions and so only ever get partially useful answers.

This is not, I should emphasise, an ideological statement about the dangers of big government squashing a free and engaged society – because what we’re talking about here are some very genuine efforts by government, in its local form, to change its role by pushing power and activity into communities. The problem, I believe, is that these efforts either start in the wrong sort of space or are transplated into that wrong sort of space too soon, straight-jacketed and drained of all their colour and energy for the sake of making them look neat and tidy.

So our challenge, as councils, as community groups, as a whole system in any locality – is to keep as much activity as we can in the collaborative sphere; to realise that this is the place where people are likely to come together and make connections, share ideas, be creative and positive and participative. The governed sphere will always be hugely important in keeping things safe and evidenced and accountable, but rely on this space for radical new, co-produced solutions and we’ll continue to be disappointed.