Community involvement – what sort?

Knowing what sort of community involvement you’re encouraging people to get involved with is important because purpose, committment and culture vary in different contexts. There are many ways to interpret the idea of ‘community involvement ‘- as individuals through to groups (collective ways of working), and from formal to informal ways of engaging; from mother and toddler drops-in to very organised Development Trusts. Sometimes involvement is community ‘owned’ such as Friends of the Earth and residents’ groups. Sometimes people get involved in council run schemes such as Participatory Budgeting and Police and Communities Together meetings (PACT).

Here are some ideas to prompt and challenge your thinking about how people are involved in influencing decisions.

Have you seen this?

You could use a blank version of this to to think about and map the involvement that exists in your area. It could help you to get a feel for the levels and different types of activity and to think about the potential for your area.

Taken from Civil Renewal & Active Citizenship: A guide to the debate, NCVO 2005

Many councillors see their priority in the bottom right square – formal ways of engaging individual constituents. Localism changes this and makes it necessary for councillors to widen their connections with people and groups in their ward


Who do you connect with in your constituency?

Have you heard of this?

The ladder of participation was originally developed in the USA by Sherry Arnstein in 1969 and proved a very useful way of thinking about consultation, participation and involvement. Her eight ‘rungs’ range from Manipulation to Citizen Control. To some extent this was a sign of the times – back in the 60s it was usually a matter of one civic power holder – council or agency – considering how much ‘say’ they would give to citizens.

David Wilcox amended Sherry Arnstein’s ladder in 1994 and this is the one we have used here – with 5 rungs. One concern about using a ‘ladder’ is the suggestion that some approaches are better than others. Wilcox suggests that it is ‘not really a matter of the higher up the ladder the better, but rather horses for courses’.

Do you tend to inform people about decisions that are already made or which are quite far down the line?

Do you gather people together to explore local problems and think about solutions?

Understand how power works

If the role of the councillor is to support people in communites to influence the local agenda, understanding how power works can be very useful. Are communities encouraged to get involved in order to influence? If they are, the power dynamics between people and groups, between people and you (the elected representative), and between people and service providers have to be acknowleged.

There are many ideas and theories about power – what we want to focus on here is the challenge to get beyond the notion that one’s own power is diminished by others also having influence; power is fluid and not limited nor finite.

You can find more about power in power and making change happen

Have you heard of this?

Closed space, invited space, created/claimed space power cube

This is a way of looking at where involvement, engagement and decisions making takes place and who sets the terms of the debate. It describes different types of meetings and ownership of agendas.

Closed space:

This is what it says on the can – closed to outsiders or those not in the know. Decisions are taken by a few about the many and the ‘few’ have the necessary power to make this happen.

Does this happen in your area or in your Council?

Is this neccesary at times? If so, what are the possible consequences?

Invited space:

When the ‘few’ open up meetings or forums and allow others in to give their views and opinions. The space is still controlled and owned by the people with power. Examples are PACT meetings and  Local Joint Committee/Forum, when councillors, representatives from the Police, Fire service invite constituents to discuss area issues. Often the voting is restricted to councillors as elected representatives for the area.

Do you have an example of this on your patch?

When people come along to meetings that are held by the council, they need to know the ‘rules of engagement’ in order to constructively take part . This is part of your role. Sometimes people don’t know how these things work.

Do you explain how formal council run meetings work?
Do you support people to take part in way which feels comfortable to them?

Created/claimed space:

When people (constituents) create their own groups. organisations or networks around their priorities and ideas. They are in control of what happens in that space and lobby together.

Do you know of any local community networks or community/voluntary infrastructure organisations?

The research flagged up the importance of community owned space in the form of local groups and networks which can connect to Local Authority and councillor engagement mechanisms. At a recent meeting about neighbourhood planning, one councillor had to explain to a resident the importance of having community groups which operate independently of the council and which are resident led. Community run groups can present ideas to the council and act as a critical freind – they can be significant allies for councillors.

Do you connect to group and networks in your role as a councillor?

Do you hold regular meetings with them to air concerns, discuss ideas and plan together?

Now move onto Give it a go

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