How do we build the best public services for the future? It’s clear that one size won’t fit all with rising demand and diminishing budgets. But by engaging at the right place and time, we can build the public services that are really needed and wanted by communities. And by understanding priorities and acting on them, we can move towards communities taking ownership of outputs, feeling empowered to participate and take pride in their local area.
At our recent workshop in partnership with Solace and local government leaders, we discussed how to have these vital ‘what matters’ conversations and drive change in communities. When we think about 2032 and the future of local government, how will community engagement need to evolve?
It can be challenging to reach everyone, whether they live in an inner-city borough or rural area. Local authorities may be more likely to hear from those who are well-educated or often retired with more time on their hands and already involved in their communities. But how representative is their view compared to the wider community?
There have also been great strides taken to reach out to specific groups who have previously been under-represented such as those with disabilities or the LGBTQIA+ or traveller community which is obviously beneficial. But what about the ‘squeezed middle’ of workers and families who can be both cash and time poor and are harder to reach to find out their expectations?
Some councils are already highly effective at this engagement; Kathy O’Leary from Stroud Council talked about the great engagement they have with the local Youth Council, with its top team set to meet with the Chief Executive soon to discuss the issues that really matter most.
To reach communities better, many councils hold so called ‘Trojan Horse’ events, going into shopping centre, libraries or youth centres to really find out what the local needs are. Events such as community Iftars to engage better or organising Taxi Driver Awards to find out more about hate crime reporting for example, can really help authorities to build a better picture of life in their area and put meaningful plans in place.
There’s also the need to empower communities to take on decisions and move some accountability over to create resilience. Leaders in local government can be so averse to risk that encouraging community action is seen to have too many pitfalls. But there are plenty of examples, from Covid-19 through to the current cost-of-living crisis where people in communities have contacted councils asking for help to unlock certain barriers to make a real difference themselves – which can be very powerful and resolve issues quickly and effectively.
We also need relationships built on trust – we need to be clear about what is and what isn’t on the table. If we make these conversations trustworthy, meaningful and really listen to our communities, we can deliver genuine, impactful change. As Kathy added: “Trust needs to be built slowly. We won’t achieve the best outcomes without building real trust and listening hard to what people are telling us. This will enable us to build the services people really want”.
The future will see undoubtedly see increased digitalisation of services and we need to keep up with rapid advances and demand. This will all help us achieve the ultimate goal of working with the community, not for them – providing what’s really needed and improving local lives.