Elections should be the beginning, not the end of community engagement

ppls path talking circle

To make democracy work, we must be a notion of participants, not simply observers. One who does not vote has no right to complain.” Louis L’Amour

I have now participated on three election campaigns in Wisbech.  On each occasion practical lessons have been learnt but a reoccurring theme is the feeling of disconnect between voters, politicians and public bodies.  There are a minority of people I have spoken with who know their councillor, but for most it is only election times that there is any significant engagement.  For those elected to office I believe there is an obligation to make an effort to meet and listen to as many of their constituents as possible on a regular basis. If we are serious about encouraging participative democracy then opposition politicians must also do more; it is not as if there are not opportunities for any political party or individual to rally on issues which they might be aligned or have an interest in.

Democracy should not be regarded as a passive act.  For a genuine conversation to take place voters must actively participate, and politicians must make every opportunity available.  I know of many individuals who to write letters to newspapers, blog and are willing to “work” for their neighbourhood and town.  These people need to be encouraged – and hopefully some might be developed to become community “beacons” who might facilitate and “signpost” at a level which, in the broadest interpretation, officials and politicians tend not to operate – and sometimes for valid logistical reasons. The so-called “beacons” would require support, training and probably some assessment. We would certainly need to ensure they understood and accepted their defined role, we do not want to set up another level of representatives. Of course there will need to be controls and regulation but we must break down the idea that government is something “done to us”.

My ambition is for a much broader interest from voters in their locality; engaging with councillors, public bodies and local media may take some effort but access to social media provides a tool which can access and comment with immediacy. I would also suggest that there needs to be more investment by councils in particular to educate and provide access to resources to allow neighbourhoods to start up campaigns and call officials to account.
A key element of sustaining and embedding success is to communicate with stakeholders effectively and to meaningfully engage with them as early on as possible and regular basis thereafter. Developing communications and stakeholder engagement strategies not only bring commitment but they can help in identifying and resolving both risks and issues. This should be considered an investment, not a cost.

The needs, concerns and priorities of stakeholders

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
George Bernard Shaw

A simple statement of fact is that each stakeholder will have different needs, concerns and priorities. It is also a fact that there will be strategic proposals and decisions which are outside of the scope of influence but which the community must nevertheless be communicated with, and concerns considered. There have been efforts in the past by local government to inform and engage with the public but my personal view is that the end result is often inaccessible or unattractive to the majority of people. You have to make a decision whether you are actively participating in democracy or simply taking the easy steps to tick the consultation box.

A network of local “beacons” gives you the opportunity to connect with people in many new ways. I would suggest it might also be a way to measure success of any consultation, and certainly reflect on the delivery of your projects or products. If the model is successful then it provides an opportunity for how you formally consult with other stakeholders too. Many networks are built up through personal experience and relationships, most will provide a degree of success but can it be improved?

From my personal experience too often projects are concerned with purely producing the outputs specified in the project plan. However, on their own outputs will be meaningless unless they have been communicated to stakeholders and there are degrees of acceptance and “buy in” from each group. A first step is identifying what each stakeholder wants to achieve and ensuring these outputs are valid – which takes us back to the premise of this blog.

We always hear about the rights of democracy, but the major responsibility of it is participation.”

Wynton Marsalis

My approach is generally to a) ignore the advice on what I’m told I cannot do and b) disregard what I know is impossible. Otherwise be ambitious and innovate. I have listed below what I would include in my “to do” list to get things moving:
1. Review of any current community engagement and communication strategies with the ambition of improving participation at all levels, including a consideration as to how technology and social media might be harnessed.
2. Councillors to work with officials to consider how a community network might work, including roles and responsibilities.
3. Arrange a periodic open session – perhaps based upon County Divisions – where people may view current proposals on displays, there might also be a variety of presentations, and perhaps some sessions from local groups and charities. There could be opportunities for people to discuss, record or submit written views on any plans.
4. A stakeholder group might consider the role, training and recruitment of neighbourhood “beacons”.
5. Encourage the support of political parties and community groups in development and support of initiatives.



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