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Collaboration is not a cheap option

For me, collaboration doesn’t mean always agreeing with each other. But it does mean recognising that we each have something to offer. Communities work best when all residents feel involved. It’s often the small things we do that make the difference and help people to feel connected.

Big Local is about residents taking a lead in making their communities even better places to live and this is particularly successful where communities and public services are pulling together, not fighting each other. Collaboration happens when we all acknowledge that everything that takes place in a community is a work in progress. We’re not going to get things right first time. The process of working and learning together is what makes somewhere a great place to live.

Collaboration is about more than just showing basic courtesy to others. It means identifying shared priorities, unlocking resources we have between us, respecting each other’s views and making decisions together. Sometimes it means people that are used to being in charge showing, by what they say and do, that they are ready to take responsibility, but willing to share power. No one does that without a lot of trust in the people they are going to share that power with. That’s why strong, respectful relationships are at the heart of collaboration.

Real collaboration needs strong leadership to

challenge bad habits and make things happen.

For the past 18 months, people involved in our Big Local area have been meeting regularly with local councillors, key officers, the police inspector and fire chief. We get together every four to five weeks. One of us makes a cake. We meet in the police station and talk about what matters to us. We try really hard not to blame each other for stuff that’s happened in the past. We’re learning to support and hold each other to account for what we’re doing now and trying to do in the future.

We’ve shown that we are passionate about our town and willing to put our energies into doing things to make it better. We don’t expect special treatment. We want to pull our weight as residents – we know things are tough for local councils. But we don’t want officials to go ahead with making changes without listening to what we have to say about what it’s actually like to live here.

We don’t expect responsibility for tricky things to be offloaded onto residents. That’s not what collaboration is about. When people behave like that it makes everyone just feel like walking away. As residents we’ve soaked up hours of moaning from local people about the council. We’ve tried to talk about what’s good about the town and our collective responsibilities for making it better. In some ways that’s easier to do as a resident than an official.

We’ve made a start. We’ve run large and small community events and activities together. Residents have been helped by council officers to make things happen: join dots, broker relationships, overcome costs and restrictions for room hire, organise street closures, ensure public safety. We’ve identified changes to street furniture that we’d like to make and reminded the council about the importance of taking on board our ideas for the look of the place. We’ve painted and weeded some town centre planters and got to know officers that we can turn to for advice. They’re unblocking barriers to allow us to grow vegetables on street corners and bring reindeer to the switching on of our Christmas lights. We’re finding ways through the red tape that so often stops good things happening.

Real collaboration needs strong leadership to challenge bad habits and make things happen. We’ve lost a few battles, but we are trying to focus on the long game. We know the way residents and services work together has to change, but those changes won’t happen on good will alone. Some of us involved with our Big Local have years of public sector experience. It helps to build relationships if residents talk the language of the officials, are tenacious and know how to challenge. But governments have to be realistic about the task ahead.

Collaboration is not a cheap option. Without public services investing in changing the way they do things there’s a real danger that new collaborations will go the way of so many other community initiatives. We’ll end up with a few small sparks but no sustained change; and we need and want sustained change in our community.

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