Innovative participatory methods are transforming how councils serve their residents
Local government has had a trust and engagement problem. Tired methods are used to speak to the same people, designed so councils only hear what they expect to hear when it least inconveniences a decision they have already made. As one borough officer put it, “when did a survey ever change anything we did?”. We need to do better.
Fortunately, the past decade has seen local authorities starting to reimagine what good resident engagement might look like, with new tools and approaches being developed and increasingly used in practice. Some of these have been digital or online tools, but many methods have been offline, finding new ways to apply (sometimes historical) insights about how different types of conversations and participation processes can lead to different learnings – and realising how useful those learnings are.
In light of this, on February 7, LOTI is convening officers from across London Boroughs for an Innovation Day on Resident Participation in Local Government. We are eager to explore the question of how bold and transformative participatory methods can ultimately improve the positive impact that we make on people’s lives. This event publicly kicks off our work on Innovative Resident Participation and will set the tone for the collaborative manner through which we are looking to improve practice in this regard across London. Below we set out some of our findings on this, and which the Innovation Day will consider.
Why do we need new innovative participation methods?
The engagement and trust problem has manifested a commitment to improving resident engagement, which is likely a foundational context for why some councils have made strong political commitments to co-creation, and even letting residents shape policies and processes.
Emerging from research around these practices, both within London and more broadly, from organisations like Involve, Nesta and the OECD, is a consensus around what can be achieved through new and better participation. This includes:
- Improves the cycle of resident trust, as residents see councils making decisions informed by their views, and councils learn to trust residents shaping decisions more.
- Build on resident knowledge, including the diversity of lived experiences, genuine expertise, plus on-the-ground insights that councils do not contain within their own organisations.
- Better, sustainable outcomes when decisions are made with community buy-in, that can transcend politics or ideological divisions, and extend beyond political cycles.
- Greater legitimacy to make decisions, especially around topics that may be divisive, understanding community consensus and building on that grants unparalleled legitimacy.
- Improves social cohesion and empowers marginalised communities, by fostering respectful dialogue between people from different communities, and by deliberately engaging with the most seldom-heard voices.
Ultimately, together, these things naturally result in the improved lives of people living in a borough, through the combination of better and more sustainable decisions made with better information, shaped by greater wisdom from more people. Readers can see how this plays out in practice through Camden’s Data Charter, which was created by a Resident’s Panel.
Using (new and innovative) digital tools
Most London boroughs now have a corporate digital engagement platform, but these are rarely the site of much innovation. These are primarily used for hosting surveys, and are only an improvement on the websites of councils because they are more accessible, surveys are in the same place, and they usually encourage better reporting back to residents on how their contributions shaped the borough’s actions. The next most common tool used is the mapping function, which has so far been used mostly by Highways or Planning teams but is starting to gain broader interest – such as letting residents map where women feel unsafe in boroughs following the murder of Sarah Everard in 2020.
Some boroughs are starting to get more out of these platforms.
- Ealing realised that online consultations make multi-language consultation much easier through online text-translation tools, and ran their consultation on their future borough in all 9 of the common languages in their borough. This led to them receiving 11,000 responses (such an engagement across other boroughs might have normally yielded up to 5,000 responses).
- Newham uses some of the integrated features around file-sharing, conversation hosting, event-sharing and project timelines on their platform, to help foster more rounded digital engagement.
- Barking and Dagenham have pushed the community features, with 7 different ‘Neighbourhoods’ with their own digital space on their platform, where hyperlocal consultations can be run, but also residents can start to share what they want, including community events and activities, using tools like mapping tools however they choose and want.
However, there are many other opportunities for using digital tools to improve participation. For example, there are tools that exist that can help reveal consensus amongst participants through voting on proposed statements around a topic. Most notable is pol.is, made famous in Taiwan, but which has even been tested in London in Newham – and which PolicyLab are now offering through partnership to boroughs. There are other lower-spec but free versions of this online too.
There are also other creative approaches that boroughs can take, still making use of digital innovations but providing other types of insight. Hello Lamp Post uses QR-code style prompts on physical infrastructure in spaces where a borough may want to have a hyper-local ‘conversation’, to set up SMS conversations with a resident using that space. This allows for place-based experiential feedback (as well as communication outwards). Or, the Greater London Authority (GLA) are using Minecraft Education to help young people visually express how they want Croydon town centre to look – representing in digital art a space is actually much easier than putting it in words, and the more creative process.
Better insights through better community engagement
Community engagement more broadly is also improving before our eyes. Councils are doing a better job – although are in many cases far from being where they want to be – in engaging the ‘hard-to-reach’ (or seldom-heard as I prefer to call them). Some of these recent gains have come through recognising that the council isn’t best placed to set up new spaces to attract people. With stripped-back engagement teams, some councils have really leaned on the community and voluntary sector to help them reach certain groups, and online, since the pandemic, other councils have started proactively using existing Facebook community spaces.
There is also increasing maturity around designing projects that generate the right, most useful and powerful insights, to help councils make decisions. That information will look different. In Haringey, for example, they ran a ‘legislative theatre’ on rough sleeping, inviting residents with lived experience and council staff to create and put on a play for the council, demonstrating the human side of interacting with council services and where they thought they could be improved. Or, in Islington, they knew they wanted to engage with LGBTQ groups better, but wanted to give different pockets within this heterogeneous community an ability to express themselves. To do so, they trained LGBTQ people as their own documentary makers, provided them with cameras, and allowed them to express themselves through a creative art form.
Lastly is the emergence of deliberation as a tool. Deliberation at its core is a more slow-paced, respectful and facilitated dialogue that allows participants to lead conversations as and where they want. In groups, it also excels in building consensus and thus social cohesion. The ‘deliberative wave’ has often been characterised by the large-scale ‘citizen assemblies’ or equivalent panels, and London has had them certainly: most have been on climate change (indeed I advise Barnet on their Climate Assembly), but other themes include racial equality, data strategy, and town planning. However, deliberation can also happen at a smaller scale, like Islington’s conversations with older people on their experiences of inequality, or Camden’s distributed dialogues around data.
What does a participatory borough look like?
Considering the suite of processes that have emerged begs the question, what would a council look like that embraced working in a more participatory way? Below are a few ideas I’ve had in my research.
First, building a culture and set of skills to be able to do this type of engagement consistently, repeatedly and sustainably is vital. One approach that boroughs have taken is internal networks of practitioners working on this topic, given it is spread across the borough. The most innovative example of this is in Kensington & Chelsea, where their network not only meets regularly, and invites external speakers, but actually funds projects through the network in different directorates. Having the right governance processes is also massive. Many boroughs have recently created, updated, or are currently creating new engagement or participation strategies or policies. These can help, but many also exist and are not currently used. Councils need internal communications and connections between practitioners to maximise the benefits of these.
A key lesson in this transformation will be using what you have. For example, connecting user-centred design methods with community engagement methods. A great example of this was in Hammersmith & Fulham, where a researcher set up a Digital Accessibility Group to improve accessibility on their website. However, that panel was kept on and now is helping the council co-design – and co-deliver – its digital inclusion work, and is now a thriving community engagement channel.
There is also a question about the decision-making power that a council is willing to divest to its community. In London, this has been most apparent in aforementioned deliberative assemblies or panels, but is also notable in various participatory budgeting efforts, done or trialed by boroughs such as Kensington & Chelsea, Newham, Brent and Barking and Dagenham and Tower Hamlets. These involve residents both proposing ideas for how a pool of money should be spent, and then separately reviewing and voting on these ideas. By proposing and judging how the money should be spent, rather than the council, local communities are given a greater say in how their lives actually function.
Opportunities for Collaboration
Across my research, speaking to boroughs across London plus practitioners from other partner organisations, a few opportunities have emerged for
It was stark how few examples exist of multiple boroughs running participation activities together. Whilst boroughs are politically independent and demographically different, most engagement will and should fall along borough lines, clearly, some is most sensibly done in a collaborative way. Below are some examples where collaborative approaches should be self-evidently better:
- On issues that concern people’s lives across boroughs. People don’t live their full lives in one borough, even if they reside in one. If we want our city to function better with people living multi-borough lives, we need pan-borough engagement. For example, many boroughs ran open mapping projects around women’s safety in 2020 and 2021, where women could drop a pin on a map where they felt unsafe. However, if their walk home took them into another borough, the map stopped, and that insight couldn’t be captured – but clearly the person’s life and fear don’t end there!
- Engagement when boroughs run a shared service, where engagement teams are spread across two organisations, may see distinct engagement projects around the same service. This happened in one instance around a waste management service.
- Issues that demand a multi-borough response, vision, or decision. For example, climate or environmental activities made in one borough may affect the climate or environment of another. Boroughs need to collaborate to best determine shared approaches for these problems that span political borders, and so need participatory methods that do this too.
- Joint procurement or co-development of tools. This can help save money for individual councils and London as a whole, help foster a shared vision and community of practice for how we use tools, and help align resident expectations across the city.
LOTI is keen to explore this in the future, to see where we can support borough practice and develop thinking or resources to enable greater collaboration where it is necessary. This will be the core of our ongoing work to help boroughs use more innovative participatory methods, and kicks off with our Innovation Day on Resident Participation in Local Government on February 7, which will shortly be followed by a report on this topic. For any questions on this, do reach out to me at email@example.com.