Engaging the Community

This panel was led by Kate Hellard (FTC) and Chris Chinnock (Nurture Development).

The panel began with remarks from Chris Chinnock, discussing the importance of engaging with communities, and in changing our attitudes in the way we engage.

He highlighted the current situation, often seen from councils and other service providers, describing it as a “shiny ambulance at the bottom of a cliff”. Too often, we label people based on what they don’t have, and provide solutions once they have already gone over the cliff edge. A service aiding the homeless, for example, might not provide any aid until a person was “homeless enough”. The current model often focuses on delivery, which relies on segmenting people into categories and measuring success based on narrow measures – how fast the ambulance gets people to the hospital after they have fallen off the cliff. Sometimes, resources might go towards offering a parachute, or building a fence at the edge of the cliff, but very rarely are the current services geared towards stopping people from falling entirely, by tackling the root of the issue.

By taking people in the round rather than segmenting them, we can begin to solve the root of the issue and create real change. Chris asked, “What would happen if we started a conversation based on what we’ve already got?” This approach focuses on discovery rather than delivery. By going into the community and looking at what is working, what we already have and what opportunities we can see, councils can engage in asset-based development. By building on what exists, different organisations and community groups can be brought together to tackle issues in much more concrete ways.

Chris finished by adding that in many places, to engage with the community, you must first build a community. Many places lack the traditional sense of community, and engaging with the community therefore becomes about first encouraging people to engage with each other.

The discussion then went on based on questions and remarks from the rest of the panel.

With many people in smaller towns using the area as a transient gateway to bigger cities, how do we stimulate people to join in the local community?

At Frome Town Council, there has been a lot of support put into supporting the town’s vibrant community organisations. This started with Participate Frome, which aimed to bring people together, ask people what change they would like to see in their community, and how they could achieve it. This informed the current work program and strategy.

The question of how to engage people in their community and care about where they live was achieved through a Community Connections pilot project. It’s aim was to determine the important factors in building communities, especially at a street level. By bringing neighbourhoods together, for example over a green space at a local event, FTC were able to help build a more vibrant community by encouraging people to have fun, meet and connect with new people, and use a local space many had not before. By encouraging people to come together in this way, we can create local networks who support each other and talk about issues, as well as feeling empowered to create change on a local level. Once people feel that they can have a positive effect on their street, they then feel they can create change within a wider community as well.

How do you manage the conveyance of bad news?

Town councils can feel stuck in the middle. They are often the first point of contact for residents, but can also feel powerless compared to district or county councils. This makes it difficult to manage expectations and engage effectively with the community, when there is often a lot of negativity directed at them.

At FTC, we developed an easy read guide – What Does Frome Town Council Do? – with a local community organisation. This has been distributed to households in Frome, and helps to clearly tell people what happens at each level in the Council.  In addition, the council has many ways to communicate information, engage and have conversations. This includes the Communications team, as well as newsletters, online, and other media through local organisations.

As councils, both staff and elected individuals, we are in delivery mode. Coming into a conversation with a certain mindset –  “we have bad news to deliver” – can shape the outcome and result in a closed loop. Perhaps instead of spending time focusing on what is going wrong, we can celebrate the good things and find solutions to positively change the bad.

Finally, councils can also encourage people to take responsibility. Treating communities as citizens, not residents, and asking “What are you going to do about it?” can encourage people to view the council as an organisation which supports them in achieving change.

More Information

Additional notes on this topic from the Breaking the Mould booklet can be found here.

For more information about Frome Town Council’s community initiatives visit frometowncouncil.gov.uk/your-community


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