Article originally published in The Guardian on 7 July 2011.
The secret to community involvement is convincing people that something good might happen if they contribute, says Richard Wilson.
As a buzz starts to build around the imminent public services reform white paper, dubbed the “big society bill”, one question comes clearly to the fore: do people really want to get involved?
We know that ministers of all persuasions want to get people more involved. But what’s the evidence that people themselves want or are likely to get involved? Aren’t we busy enough?
The short answer would appear to be yes. For most of us, the offer of turning up to a meeting and maybe improving something, is nowhere near good enough. We need to know that something good is going to come from us turning up. Either we’re going to get something out it – eat well, have a good time, meet some great people – or be pretty sure we can have some kind of impact. Sadly, most official consultations fall woefully short on all these counts.
At the moment a “civic core” (unfairly dubbed by some “the usual suspects”) of about 30% of the population accounts for most of the involvement, 90% of all volunteer hours and 70% of civic involvement. People in this core tend to be better educated and more middle class than the population as a whole. They also tend to be motivated by improving the wider community and environment, which is not surprising but important as most people in Britain (around 50%) are more interested in issues which more obviously affect them as individuals.
So if public managers want to get more people involved, we need to do things in ways which appeal to this group. I’ve come up with seven ideas that might help:
1. Talk is cheap
The term consultation is a complete turn-off, so stop consulting and start action. Many of the best involvement projects, such as Envision, are led and delivered by their participants. The Envision team see themselvesas facilitators helping students drive the changes they want.
2. Make it easy and fun
Use online, local pubs or community events. Lambeth council gained a massive response when it ran a schools consultation at fun days in 2008, using stalls, games and piggybacking on the summer fun days that were happening anyway.
3. Don’t worry about involving everyone
People obsess about giving everyone an equal voice – a great aspiration – but don’t let it stop you involving some people well. The Big Luncheshave really successful at bringing communities together. You’re not always sure who has actually turned up, but everyone’s invited – and that’s what’s important.
4. Go to the people
Find out which community groups or online forums are most active and start there. South London councillor James Barber had a huge response when he started using his community online forum to engage residents.
5. Mix up social media and meetings
Some people like online; others prefer meeting in person. Shropcamp andCityCamp Brighton are two recent examples of what can happen when you fuse social media and great events. Both followed the unconference model, with participant-led workshops alongside social media platforms, to harness the ideas of those in the room and those who can’t make it.
6. Don’t assume charities are always best at engagement
7. Understand your audience
Many of us still assume that the people we’re trying to reach are like us. Telford health care trust struggled for many years to get young mothers involved in its programmes. Frustrated at the lack of progress, they asked some mums what it would take for them to get involved. It turned out many wanted a Wii Fit, so they offered one through a prize draw to those who got involved; and the mums started coming. It may seem obvious – but it wasn’t obvious to the Telford team until they asked.
Richard Wilson will be writing a monthly column responding to key issues identified by you. If you’d like to suggest future subjects email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.