Doing Council business differently: Part 1 – Engagement

In several previous posts, brought together in Can the Council be a leader?, I have illustrated why I believe Exeter City Council needs to change its political and administrative culture if it is to succeed in harnessing the energy and talents within the city to make it a truly liveable place in the 21st century.  I’m not suggesting Exeter’s  council is unique in needing to change:  I focus on it because I live in and care about Exeter.

In this and successive posts, I suggest ways in which the Council can change, using four headings:

  • Engagement
  • Leadership
  • Openness
  • Governance

This first post addresses what could be done to engage better with the communities the Council exists to serve.

Why engage?

In the age of deference, it was enough to elect MPs and councillors, then leave decision-making to them, informed by central and local government professional staff.  That age has passed, but a readiness in some quarters to leave the elected representatives to get on with things persists – though driven more by apathy and despair at the quality of our governance rather than by any deferential attitudes.  Where the pip squeaks is when a council – and it is usually a council – takes a decision that upsets, inconveniences or affects the quality of life of individuals.  The fact that these decisions appear to come out of the blue brings our governance further into disrepute.

Good engagement between decision-takers and communities helps address this.  Decisions are supported by a much richer and locally-specific evidence base; and communities feel engaged with the decisions and more understanding of the factors affecting it.  It is a part of a wider necessary democratic renewal.

What is engagement?

Real engagement with communities – whether they be residential, business, sports, public service, local interest groups and so on – is not something that comes naturally to Exeter City Council.  The Council claims that it consults on many issues; and so it does.  The problem is that “consultation” doesn’t tick all the boxes, as the following table shows:

CONSULTATION by Council ENGAGEMENT with communities
Asks for comments (often as multiple-choice answers) on a proposal that has already been worked out in detail. Council explains the issue (eg, problem to be solved, development to be pursued) and seeks views on how best to solve/advance it before putting forward proposals.
Feedback, when it occurs, is limited to summary of voting numbers and some identification of common concerns.  No or minimal explanation of how the consultation has influenced the final decision. A continued dialogue is maintained, with the Council explaining how the engagement process has influenced their thinking, followed by a willingness to continue to engage as proposals evolve.
Respondents are self-selecting, often confined to those with a developed interest in public affairs or happen to be in the High St and drop into an exhibition. Participants are actively sought out by the Council.
Consultation exhibitions are typically on one day, in the city centre, and consisting of a few explanatory boards and an encouragement to fill out the response form there and then. Flexible arrangements for engagement events are mutually agreed
There is limited scope for individual or community learning – essentially an isolated activity, although some organised groups do prepare considered responses Opportunities arise for people/groups to improve their understanding of issues and for action learning (see comment below on the Heavitree project)

 

Engage on what?  Macro or micro?

There is evidence, albeit anecdotal, that too many people only wake up to the consequences of a policy decision when it hits them personally.  Planning applications are a common example (see below) but so are school and hospital closures [1], car park charges increases, park closures for special events, new student accommodation, and so on.  The common thread here is the event is invariably a consequence of a policy decision taken a year or more ago, with minimal consultation, let alone engagement.   Who remembers the Car Parking Strategy when the charges go up in line with it? [2].

Then there are the really macro policies, above all the pursuit of economic growth.  It spills out of every strategy, it’s the justification for housebuilding, it underpins policy support for the steady spread of the city eastwards into the Business Park, the Science Park, the Skypark, the large retail sites (including IKEA, arriving any time now) and the consequent loss of open space and increased traffic.  The City Council’s Chief Executive wrote in the local paper last week [3] that Exeter is striving to be “world class” and that we all share in this endeavour.  Perhaps we do, and perhaps being “world class” is a good thing; but when did anyone last take the trouble to explain what it means, how far achieving it is dependent on continued economic growth and – crucially – ask us if that a future we all want?

Constraints on engagement

Good engagement is not cost-free: staff time, meeting costs, and intellectual effort are all impacted by it.  The choice for the Council is whether these modest costs are outweighed by the benefits of good engagement.  Nor is engagement free of time constraints, though the Council’s aim should be to build engagement into their project planning as an integral element (not just a line at the end saying “public consultation”).

Engagement on planning applications presents particular challenges, because of the time limits for taking decisions.  What is important here is that planning policy – the yardstick against which individual planning decisions are taken – is drawn up using good engagement principles in place of the present outrage in which planners give themselves 18 months or more to draft a plan and expect those of us whose lives will be affected by it to comment in 6 weeks [4].  Small surprise that there are storms of protest from Pinhoe when an application for another 150 houses comes in.

Who does the Council engage with?

The list is endless, though the constraints noted above impose practical limits.  But engagement is not about talking to the usual players, such as the NHS, the University and the Chamber of Commerce – they employ people whose job it is to influence the Council.  Real engagement involves a wide range of interested parties, some of whom will be organised single-interest groups with an understanding of lobbying.  Others will not be so organised, will have multiple interests and will need to be sought out and engaged.  But the key is for the Council to work out at the beginning who will be impacted by what it is thinking of doing, and being them into the process from the start.

For this, new mechanisms are not always necessary.  Area-based community associations exist around the city, but they vary in both ambition and effectiveness.  Given a helping hand, all could become forums for bringing together interested members of their community to discuss emerging issues with councillors and officers before ideas become set-in-stone proposals.  Set up attractive events, designed to encourage people to get engaged.  These can be city-wide or local, depending on the task in hand.

There is also a huge amount of professional expertise around the city to be tapped into.  Retired doctors, policy analysts, service managers, engineers and academics are just some of the people who could be engaged in helping the Council work its way through issues.  They would not be paid but would have the time, free of the distractions and self-interest involved in earning a living.  They would be far better value for money than the firms of consultants to which the Council is so addicted.

One caution.  The people in the Council who need to do the engaging are the people responsible for the issue in question.  Having people who understand communications and event management is useful, but their role is behind the scenes.

Can any of this work?

The Heavitree Community Partnership, involving the City Council, Exeter City Futures, the University and – above all – local residents and schools – is a possible pointer to a better future [5].  The jury is still out on its longer-term impacts, but there is evidence of genuine engagement on how to solve traffic problems in the city as well as spin-offs in learning techniques for the residents (eg how to measure air pollution).  It may not be the exact model for every situation but it is hugely promising.

To scale up Heavitree, or something like it, into the normal way the Council conducts its business will require new approaches to leadership, to be discussed in a future post.

NOTES

[1] Schools and health are handled by Devon County Council and the myriad NHS bodies respectively; but the principle is the same.

[2] The City Council’s Car Parking Strategy 2016-2026 does demonstrate some consultation bordering on engagement (see pages 15-18), with a 70-strong stakeholder workshop.  Users were represented by a small (20 respondents) focus group selected by a market research company.

[3]  Express & Echo, 26 April 2018, page 21.  The paper’s website – Devonlive.com – defeats my attempts at finding the online version of the article.

[4]  Although there are encouraging signs that pressure for a longer consultation period on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan is bearing a little fruit.  8 weeks, rather than 6, is being proposed in a report to councillors (page 30).

[5]  A report on the project was presented to the City Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee on 8 March 2018.

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