It has never been more important for councils to engage effectively with residents and communities.
The experience of highly challenging local government finances, the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased cost of living has shown how vital it is that councils maintain open channels of communication, and opportunities for engagement.
Councils are increasingly aware of a degree of ‘consultation fatigue’ in many communities. This challenge, in addition to that of engaging with hard-to-reach groups, has encouraged councils to fundamentally re-examine and seek innovation in how they undertake community engagement.
The LGA, the think tank New Local, and consultancy TPXimpact have been working together on a project to capture and celebrate examples of innovative community engagement in local government.
“Councils are aware of a degree of ‘consultation fatigue’ in many communities”
We hope that these examples of notable practice (see below) will be translated to other local contexts and inspire those who are delivering projects and programmes where communities need to be engaged.
Over the past few months, we have heard inspiring stories of communities, councils and partner organisations bravely moving beyond traditional methods of engagement to find new ways of listening to, and involving, residents.
In councils of all sizes, tiers, regions and political make-ups, underrepresented groups and seldom-heard communities are being brought closer to decision-making and given new opportunities to shape the places and services that matter to them.
We are struck by how often this action begins with a spark of creativity and courage from a councillor or council officer, which then inspires others to embark on a journey of change.
We have collected a set of case studies and short videos describing some notable examples of innovative community engagement from across England – see our website for more on these and other case studies.
A community’s experience of the rising cost of living
Cheshire East Council had traditionally relied on formal, conventional and digital methods to canvass the views and needs of residents. Often these resulted in self-selecting groups of residents having their say, while others were heard less clearly.
For example, council officers struggled to reach digitally deprived people, such as rural residents without broadband access, or people in poverty who could not always afford mobile data packages.
In 2021, the council adopted a new corporate plan, which included commitments to “listen, learn and respond to residents, promoting opportunities for two-way conversation”, as well as “[developing] the services of the council through regular communication and engagement with all residents”.
This encouraged officers to pursue a refreshed approach to consultation and engagement, empowering them to explore new participatory methods.
The council worked with Positive Money UK, a not-for-profit advocacy group, to run a representative ‘People’s Panel’ on the cost-of-living crisis.
Recommendations for action, developed by residents who authentically represent the local population, are now informing the council’s response to the cost-of-living crisis.
One success has been the fact that many of the recommendations were in line with the vision set out in the corporate plan and the aspirations of councillors.
Council staff were pleasantly surprised by how much the People’s Panel acted as a catalyst for further engagement, as panel members continued the conversations with others in their communities. Council officers felt the atmosphere at the workshops was more interactive and respectful than typically seen at public meetings hosted by the council.
The exercise was also well received by the wider public, thanks in part to an extensive promotional campaign and online survey. Residents have generally welcomed the council’s commitment to do more and to have better engagement.
Inspired by the success of the People’s Panel, the council is developing plans to adopt participatory methods in other areas. These include: subject-specific panels; a citizens’ assembly pilot; a standing or year-long assembly/panel, exploring a range of issues; and procuring an external facilitator on a long-term contract to work with multiple exercises.
Engaging with young people post-pandemic
West Berkshire Council had adopted a predominantly passive engagement strategy; seeking to inform residents through newsletters and engagement teams. As a result, the same demographic groups (for example, those aged 55-75) often replied.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the council’s engagement officer noticed that more people, from different groups, including children and young people, were replying and interacting with information – probably driven by people being at home with more time on their hands.
The council wanted to capture this engagement and established a new post to do so, funded for one year.
It ran a series of engagement initiatives with young people, including a youth council for secondary schools and a participatory budget for primary schools, and launched a children’s book on what councils do.
The events sought to approach engagement in a fun way, which could help children learn underdeveloped skills, such as teamwork and confidence building, while also providing an opportunity to teach the children (and their parents) about the council’s responsibilities.
The officer’s role has ended, but another team has already taken the principles learned from these small-scale, but different, approaches to engagement and integrated them into work reviewing their inclusion and diversity strategy.
The total cost for the projects was less than £30,000 – and £66 for a gazebo to help with going out into the community.
Reducing unemployment and deprivation
Seeking to identify ways to close gaps of employment, deprivation and engagement in one of Bolton’s most deprived areas, Bolton Council provided funding and significant freedom of action to a housing association – as the best-embedded organisation within the community – to experiment with forms of engagement where traditional approaches had failed.
Key to the new engagement programme was the freedom to invest substantial time in building relationships, and a light-touch approach in terms of reporting outcomes to give innovative approaches time to embed and have an impact.
New approaches have created increased trust and engagement from local residents with council and housing association services.
Co-designing the seafront
Torbay Council needed to construct new sea defences at two beaches. The original design met substantial public opposition, demonstrating significant community ‘buy-in’ to the seafront’s appearance.
The council paused the project and commissioned new designs, created using co-design and consultation principles.
The new design programme was not only an opportunity to create defences that had community buy-in and were aesthetically improved, but also a learning opportunity for the council on better ways to undertake community engagement and achieve buy-in.
Focusing on strengths
Having learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that some communities were stepping into frontline service delivery without the necessary skills, Stroud District Council focused on building community capability.
Through projects such as the extension of the community hubs programme and the implementation of a community engagement board on climate change, the council has developed strong relationships with communities and other partners.
Increasingly, community voices are being brought into the decision-making process, while the council’s mindset has shifted to one of enabler, not consulter.