Community involvement – who is bothered?

Localism is about local people being involved and influential in their area, about people ‘being bothered’ about what happens. The research highlighted that many councillors experience what they might term ‘apathy’ and are concerned that people won’t (want to) get involved. Or, they are concerned that it is the same group of people – the ‘usual suspects’ who always get involved!

There is a lot of research and experience over the past few years that challenges this assumption (for example ‘Pathways through Participation’). And, there are quite a lot of people out there who have tried to get more involved, only to end up feeling hugely frustrated.

Work around community engagement and community influence is awash with examples of people feeling that there is no point because

‘the decision has already been made’, ‘no-one listens anyway, ‘no-one ever tells us what happens as a result of our input’.

People are disillusioned with the lack of transparency of decision making, feeling that many decisions don’t reflect opinion and consultation is generally geared to those with knowledge and awareness of the system. This helps to explain why there is so much cynicism around and is potentially a serious problem for localism. If people don’t feel that they have any real influence, why should they bother? And, what often happens is that people are engaged late in a process, often reactively when they perceive a closure or risk to a service. The engagement is therefore likely to be emotionally charged, driven by the perception of already agreed outcomes rather than actually influencing and helping shape decsions, exploring local issues and coming up with local solutions.

So, there are many reasons why people don’t ‘get involved’  – and of course they may well be involved in something –  but you don’t know about it!

What stops people getting and staying involved?

Personal  Barriers that include: lack of confidence, feeling intimidated, not feeling listened to or that their opinion isn’t valued, previous negative experiences and lack of knowledge, e.g. not understanding the new Community Rights and implications for their area, not knowing ‘how things work’

Cultural Barriers that include: some groups of people are not encouraged or expected to be involved, e.g. women in some cultures, some disabled people such as those with learning difficulties, elderly people, younger people

Organisational Barriers that include: the way organisations and groups work – both formal and informal structures that can sometimes discourage participation – and practical things that prevent certain people from attending, e.g. timing of meetings, using emails to communicate, formal meetings, written communication, physical access

 It can be helpful to:

  • find out why people are not involved
  • think about what you can do to make it easier
  • support them to become involved
  • know your role when they are involved and
  • support them to stay involved.

A couple of questions to think about 

Can you think how you might be able to do this?
What motivates people in your area to get involved?

In a piece of research investigating the practicalities of localism and assessing how citizens can engage with decisions about local community and public services – the researchers came up with some useful information about the things that might trigger involvement in shaping local services. You might find these helpul when thinking about how to motivate people in your local community. (See p29-35)

Personal triggers often start with vested interest – becoming a school governor at a school that their children attend, being part of health network because of a personal condition. Positive experiences of involvement reinforce engagement and help to encourage a belief in the value of ‘being involved’

Social triggers involve others and may be a response to a perceived threat or mobilising to support a common cause. Altruism might be important here as people want to ‘do their bit’ for the community, as well as ‘being part of something’

Situational triggers are more likely where people are affected  by a particular service or issue, and importantly, have the time and resource to input into community activity.

In general, people need to believe that there will be a positive outcome, that they can fit things in around their other commitments and responsibilities and that they can actually make a difference.

How you can help

Our research also confirmed that people often feel that their local councillors are inaccessible and not always perceived as accountable to their constituents. This suggests that  there is a huge benefit in investing more time and energy in:

  • developing interpersonal relationships with constituents
  • understanding people’s motivations
  • building trust
  • finding out more about what’s going on in the area
  • negotiating priorities

The research also confirmed that people often don’t really understand the role of councillors and sometimes have unreasonable expectations, assuming that you have more power than you do. If they were clearer, they may be more likely to work ‘with’ you for the benefit of the local community.

Can you do more to  make sure that people are aware of your role, including the opportunities and limitations?


        Click here to move on to look a bit more at what is going on

    here and now


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