Communities in Control

Notes from a presentation made to a development programme for Welsh Government civil servants on involving communities in policy making

Delighted to have the opportunity to share some thoughts on the principles behind involving the community in the policy-making process & user-centered design to policies.

Azul asked me to draw on the experience of the Wales we Want national conversation – now 5 years ago also to reflect on experience with Welsh Water as chair of their Customer Challenge Group and as chair of Wales Council for Voluntary Action

I think an important starting point is recognition of the critical importance of the issue - Wellbeing of Wales annual report stated

There has been a gradual decline in those feeling they can influence local decisions. – In 2018-19, 19 per cent of people felt that they could influence decisions affecting local area. – There has been a gradual decline since the peak in 2012-13 and 2013-14.


The National Conversation on Wales we Want was of course a pilot - initiated by the Minister to contribute to the development of the WFG Act and to learn lessons that can be applied to implementation of requirements of the Act – in particular involvement as a core way of working and the role of the Commissioner's Future Generations Report

A core message from the conversation was that participants felt disconnected from the decision-makers that affected their daily lives as decisions felt removed, top-down and with no clear link to outcomes. They reported an increased sense of fatigue and frustration with the way in which they were being engaged. This was reported by groups across all sectors that we engaged, where each questioned the effectiveness and robustness of current consultative exercises, adding that by the time they are approached for their views most of the key decisions had already been made and the consultation became no more than a ‘tick-box’ exercise. Engagement from the outset and not just during consultation was the consensus, as people want to be involved in the decision making process as part of the solution . Younger participants expressed concerned of funding cuts within youth-led movements

These findings predated and provided the context for the Brexit referendum - and the last 5 years have given this issue even higher profile politically.

So what do we need to focus on

  • Importance of the carriers of the conversation – the trusted intermediaries – networks that exist – who were involved, given ownership informed, given the tools and ability to shape their conversation – WI; Young Farmers, those Community Anchor organisations that provide hubs for communities across Wales

  • The issue of trust is central – to charity sector, Welsh Water whose core focus is to earn the trust of customers everyday Remembering that Govt is not trusted - IPSOS Mori research showing 68% people trust their hairdresser to tell the truth – cf 21% believing politicians.

  • A strong sense of belonging to our communities emerged as a clear theme throughout this conversation. However, many felt a lack of engagement between the community and the decision-makers resulted in frustration due to an inability to make the necessary changes. “We need to create a Wales where communities find it easier to do things for themselves through for example increasing people’s ownership of their community including spending.”.

  • Greater empowerment is seen as creating resilience and a greater sense of responsibility, whilst top down interventions can lead to disempowerment. There are no quick fixes and involvement needs to build from the bottom up - why I have always said that town & community councils and community anchor organisations have critical roles . Importance of developments like Understanding Welsh Places, the learning from the Building Communities trust, Project Skyline Line - the Place Standard tool in Scotland tool that provides a simple framework to structure conversations about place.

  • The need to address those seldom heard voices - One potential impact of a lack of sufficient, dedicated support for community engagement and place planning is that it may deepen exclusion from decision making and widen inequalities of participation within and between communities and areas. Looking more widely, a review of the evidence for community participation concluded that those facing inequalities are often easy to ignore due to the complexity of their situation, the difficulty of forming solutions and a lack of understanding on the part of public authorities and others. Inequalities faced at large in society often constitute the key barriers that prevent people from gaining access to decision-making and from continuing to engage. We need to be aware that community engagement can often be characterised as professional talkers working with the local gossips! The recent water resilient communities experience with Welsh Water in Rhondda fach provides an excellent example of how a company can tackle this issue

  • However it is the Top Down model of change that is dominant – and not just in Wales. I would recommend Community Empowerment and landscapes from Scotland - the report highlights a clear ‘participation gap’ in characterising and designating landscapes; one in which communities’ voices are, at best, marginal to that process. “That matters because the application of an externally-imposed policy narrative appropriates the meanings attached to landscapes The participation deficit stems, in part, from an over-professionalised conservation culture. gulf between communities and national public bodies, and also national conservation NGOs. A general lack of interaction was noted, as was the feeling that, when representatives of a national authority or a large conservation NGO do engage, it is in order to ‘do something to’ the community or to stop the community from doing something. Interviewees bemoaned the frequency with which polarised positions seem to emerge.”In Wales we have seen this situation play out in the Summit to Sea initiative in mid Wales as well as in our early attempts to introduce Highly Protected Marine Conservation Zones where in both case there was a strong community reaction to being "done to"

  • Important to recognise that we have important institutional infrastructure in place – eg Third Sector Partnership Council, Third Sector Support Wales. We should be rightly proud of such structures and use them effectively for involving communities of place and interest. We need to guard against powerful forces of inertia on the one hand and our tendency to create new institutional structures on the other. But It is clear from the research that greater involvement in institutionally driven processes will not resolve the participation deficit on its own. There needs to be space for communities to define and promote their own voices. This will require a significant shift of culture within public bodies and institutions, and the dedication of resources to this task. It will require effort to build the participation capacity and capabilities of these organisations - and an awareness of potential negative impacts when the process is done badly eg Participants not being informed about how their involvement impacted on design and implementation; Disagreement and conflict within and between participants and or the with the wider community ; Frustration, loss of trust , disappointment – particularly evident when consultation and involvement process is parachuted into areas and not embedded in local structures

  • Inspiration from new developments in citizen consultation and deliberation, and lessons from disruptive challenges of people led movements such as Extinction Rebellion who themselves call for new models of citizen engagement to decide of solution for climate crisis – recognising the challenges for politicians o work within boundaries of electoral cycles – and taking it out of their hand and giving it back to the people through using Citizens Assemblies -as an approach for making difficult decisions with a high perceived political cost.

  • This approach to tackling climate change is part of a critical shift – (the CitizenShift as described by the New Citizenship Project:) - the notion that the dominant story of the individual in society is shifting from passive consumer to active citizen. Reflected in work of Customer Challenge Group in working with Welsh Water – journey from passive recipient as consumer to active participants . This needs to be central public sector bodies and local governments to reclaim the idea of participatory citizenship where residents and voters are too often encouraged to think and act like consumers of services. This is an issue when the dominate narrative is public service delivery

  • We need to look outside of Wales to examples like Kirklees Council to shift its purpose towards becoming an enabler of citizen agency rather than simply a service provider - that is, to do things WITH people rather than FOR them . I would highlight the work of the National Local Government Network in England and its work on a radical shift in approach to public servcies– and models such as Wigan Council’s approach to community empowerment and the Network’s proposal for a Community Power Act

  • International examples like The “Ostbelgien Model”, serving the small German-speaking community of Ostbelgien in Belgium, will create a dual structure of a permanent Citizens’ Council and a Citizens’ Assembly, operating in parallel with the regional parliament. Better Reykjavik The Reykjavik city council has committed to debating the most popular ideas from Better Reykjavik website and discuss whether there is enough political backing to implement them. So far, almost 60 per cent of citizens have used the platform, and the city has spent €1.9 million on developing more than 200 projects based on ideas from citizens.

There is a gap between the principle of involvement, which is enshrined in WFG Act policy, and the delivery of on the ground. There is a general relationship between people’s ability to influence decisions and their resilience as communities. Communities, when properly empowered, can drive forward the economy, provide networks of social support and positively transform their place.

We have a well established set of National Principles for Public Engagement which provides a valuable framework of practice but we need to now apply approaches that inspire participation through creative means, shared purpose and mindset shift as being led by Co-Production Wales, rather than simply gathering and processing individual opinions or "engaging" the public.

The national conversation and the 2015 report on the Wales we Want was a pilot – next year we will have the real thing with the Commissioners report based on the engagement process and vehicles like the Peoples Platform. This report was deliberately scheduled in the legislation to be produced a year before the elections to the Senedd to inform the political manifestos and enable a more informed and engaged electorate. This link needs to be applied and an incoming Government should have to demonstrate how its programme of Govt responds

I hope these thoughts have been helpful. We need to recognise that involvement is easy to write in an Act as a key way of working but much harder to deliver. Critically it needs to be resourced and skills developed but it also needs to be part of the shift of thinking and resources that puts citizens and communities at the centre – as opposed to being passive recipients of public service delivery.

Featured Review
Tag Cloud