The role of community engagement and consultation on the part of public services and charities has a long and chequered past. Communities in receipt of area-based Government funding, designed to address the causes of deprivation and disadvantage, were required to be involved to varying degrees in the allocation of that funding. Local government has long had a statutory requirement to consult on the delivery of its functions although the critique of this is that at its worst it has tended to be less true engagement and more a tick-box exercise in meeting the duty. Most public services have a requirement for some degree of community engagement and, even if they don’t, it is increasingly difficult to justify not embedding some level of user insights into their work and to improve the delivery of services. Where this is not done, the ground is ripe for service failure, poor take-up and judicial review.
Why is this important? There are two broad reasons. Firstly, because any funder of community activity and engagement needs to be sensitive to the historical context. Communities have a long collective memory of initiatives, funding and people that have come and gone over the years, without distinguishing between different funders. Most of these initiatives were designed with the best of intentions but were often a result of a top-down, hierarchical response to a challenge as perceived by those in authority and decision-makers and not through a rich understanding of people’s lived reality. Not only that, but they were then often delivered through mechanisms that, at worst, were based on engagement as a tick-box exercise and a paternalistic approach to identifying and fixing what’s ‘missing’ – a deficit, not an asset-based approach. And I say this as someone who has made many of these mistakes in the past. This suggests that for any funder to make a difference the work needs to land sensitively in these communities.
Secondly, we are increasingly seeing a shift towards a ‘post-bureaucratic age’ what Timms and Heimans call ‘New Power’, with distributed networks, flatter organisational structures, greater flexibility in the way that organisations work, with radical transparency and engagement. In part a response to the complexity of social challenges and the need for new ways of working to address them, in part a response to the failures of a hierarchical ‘command and control’ approach to service design and delivery, they offer an insight to what organisations with open engagement at their core could look like. At the heart of this shift lies legitimacy, which is not automatically conveyed upon an anchor institution but which has to be earned, just as in any other context. An engagement framework, sensitively developed and applied, can be the mechanism through which this legitimacy is earned.
By understanding the wider system and the legacy of past work, a funder can work sensitively in areas within which it is trying to make change. By recognising the changing environment and context, they can seek, and be responsive to, opportunities to make impactful change in those areas.