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The key to good collaboration between councils and citizens

One of the things that’s become increasingly clear from our work to help ‘unlock the capacity’ of local places is that councils have to drastically rethink their roles in order to provide a different kind of support to local communities. Marshalling the energy that exists in a place does not mean the council just ‘getting out of the way’. In fact, unlocking capacity demands action, not retraction, on the part of councils – it’s just that the size and shape of that action may be radically different to what they (and the community) are used to.

For instance: local people will need help, advice, training and access to expertise if they’re going to play a more active role in where they live. They will also need some license to try things out, to be part of more exploratory conversations (not just showpiece ‘consultations’) – and that means councils accepting that ‘good’, (rather than ‘perfect’), is enough when it comes to taking forward ideas and proposals put forward by local people.

It’s encouraging that more and more of the councils we encounter genuinely understand what it means to play this more supportive facilitator role. Even amongst the most committed however, there is often still work to do in ensuring that community-inspired action doesn’t suffer paralysis as soon as the ideas move from the workshop to the real world.

Recently, to give one example, we worked with a local authority to organise a series of workshops involving various council directorates, other agencies and – crucially – community groups. The aim was to uncover some new solutions to local challenges at a time when service cuts were potentially going to do damage. Liberated from the traditional ‘us versus them’ public meeting format that tends to draw out the negatives, these roundtable events produced some interesting suggestions about what could be done differently to make the most of local resources in their broadest sense.

The council diligently gathered those ideas up, took them back into the council building and started polishing and fine-tuning them into something more presentable. The problem was that by the time that was done, some months had passed, the issues had moved on, and the energy of those who attended the original meetings had drained away.

That the officers wanted to ‘get it right’ before going back to stakeholders is understandable – many have been scarred by past accusations from press and public concerning half-baked proposals and unclear messages. The result, however, was that the ideas forged in the energy of that first collaborative process were allowed to go cold back inside the town hall.

This approach had been well-intentioned but missed the point. People had been willing to explore doing things differently in partnership with the council, but rather than building on that momentum, the process of perfecting plans inadvertently allowed it to be lost. Instead of scratching heads for several weeks before re-contacting those original contributors, it might have been better for officers to make some follow-up calls within the next week, to keep things simmering and start bringing other relevant players into the mix gradually. That way, the ideas, the actions and the human networks that will take them forward could have grown in tandem.

What we’re learning through experiences like this is that unlocking capacity is not straightforward. It takes time to produce a tangible output – but this is time that should be spent building up the confidence of stakeholders and not falling back into local government cultural norms around project sign-off processes and meeting cycles which can slow things down.

Of course the high standards and good governance of local councils need to be maintained – that’s one reason why keeping elected members at the heart of conversations with local stakeholders is so important. But if the public’s experience of collaborating with their local authority is going to be a positive one, councils really need to ask themselves which of those processes are a valuable part of getting a better end result, and which create unnecessary delays that make little sense to the people out there who are eager to get started.

Harvesting ideas from the community and piling them up in the town hall ready for sorting might feel safer than helping those ideas to germinate out there in neighbourhoods. It will certainly mean a loss of control for councils. But if the gain is securing energy and momentum that’s genuinely rooted out there in the community, it’s probably a sacrifice worth making.

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