Communities – what do we mean?

Many councillors feel uncomfortable about community groups and voluntary organisations being involved in decision-making and service delivery in neighbourhoods. They have concerns about legitimacy and accountability; how do groups and organisations ensure that they don’t operate exclusively for the benefit of their members? How are other voices heard?

Councillors involved in the research suggested

being actively involved in community networks gives you a finger on the pulse of the community and provides a way in to discuss and challenge what you see going on in the area

There are lots of issues to be faced if we are talking about decentralisation and handing more power to communities. Community involvement is not just about working with individual constituents, it is also about working with community and voluntary groups and organisations, ranging from informal mother & toddler groups right through to a Development Trust.

What you can do about your understanding of the voluntary and community sector (VCS)

  • find out how voluntary and community groups can strengthen your role as councillor and how you can support them to work with and support local people
  • strengthen your links with the local voluntary and community sector
  • recognise the value those groups brings to the local community
  • find out about national voluntary sector organisations

It’s not always that straightforward though and, just because there are lots of groups involved in lots of different issues, it doesn’t mean that they are all necessarily representative of all parts of the community.

Some of the issues councillors identified include:

  • how do you ensure that any group is representative of a particular section of the community?
  • how are openess and transparency ensured in those groups?
  • how is the group accountable to the community?
  • what is the relationship between a local community group and you as local councillor?

If these questions aren’t talked about and addressed there is a real danger that a very few unrespresentative groups will arise, dominated by a few individuals and sectional interests, with little acountabililty to local people.

And of course ‘community’ is complicated:

Is it about place, background, interest, identity, or need?

People have lots of different ideas about their community and what it means to them and, many are likely to see their community as fragmented, with lots of different and potentially competing interests.

Within your ward how many different communities would you say there are?
Do these ‘communities’ get on or are there major differences?
What’s going on in your constituency?

It’s  really useful to build up a systematic picture of who is doing what, where, when in your local area.  As well as the more obvious groups, organisations and networks, there are bound to be lots of smaller ‘under the radar’ activities and organisations out there – make sure that those  voices are also heard and people encouraged to get involved.

One particulary helpful approach can be focus on the ‘assets’ that can be found in your community – those resources – whether people, skills, land, buildings, social networks – that can be nurtured and built upon to ensure a sustainable future. Appreciating Assets explores different approaches to this approach and is full of interesting and thought provoking questions and ideas.

 Things to do:

  • find out who’s doing what, where, when in your community
  • map resources and community assets in the area with the help of existing groups and willing residents

Now check out about community involvement – what sort?

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