Connected Communities in Bexley, rethinking citizen participation

Last week, I joined several of my colleagues for our Connected Communities kick off meeting. The Connected Communities enquiry aims to explore a number of key themes around improving civic participation, unlocking the assets within our communities, engaging residents more in their local places and involving citizens in decision making. By harnessing design techniques, we aim to uncover learnings and insights that can inform our approach here in Bexley. We understand that the transactional nature of traditional service models needs to be challenged and this enquiry aims to do just that.

As the Community Paradigm advocates “if public services are to move towards a more preventative approach then individual citizens, and particularly their communities and networks, must take on much greater responsibility for their own lives”. This enquiry gives us the space to explore this statement over the coming months, involving our citizens and key stakeholders in our discovery and questioning what has traditionally been quite a passive role for citizens in their relationship with the state.

We’re taking a design-led, human centred approach and will seek to combine people, capacity and ideas in new ways. As with all transformation in local government, there is a financial imperative to the project, but we’re equally interested in how this can help build resilience in communities and improve outcomes. Through the enquiry approach, we’re giving ourselves time and space to create opportunities for increased social and financial value and to speculate on different futures for our citizens and our borough.

Representing the proposition

For our first meeting we posed the question ‘What does the brief mean to you?’ and invited colleagues to bring with them an object which they felt represents the proposition. Items could relate to an individual’s specific role, a question the brief raises or simply something that resonates with the individual in relation to the enquiry.

One colleague brought a commemorative mug that was given to her in 1977, celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, saying “There was a street party in my road – The Drive Bexley. All children were invited and given a mug. It was the last time I could genuinely say I felt part of the community I live in”.

Alongside the mug sat a Parkrun barcode from a recent convert. “Every Saturday morning hundreds of strangers arrive at my local park to run together. There are always people to chat with and it really fosters a sense of belonging. Each week, people take it in turns to volunteer running the event, taking photographs and supporting others – this really is community in action”.

The exercise sparked a great discussion and it became clear that though the word community is not an easy thing to define, there certainly seem to be themes that we as individuals look for when we’re a part of a community. These themes and common understandings are things we will be exploring further with our residents and wider stakeholders throughout the enquiry.

Watch this space

 Through this project and a number of others, we’re trying a different approach to transformation here in Bexley. Over the coming months we will be writing here about our learnings and insights in an effort to be transparent about the challenges and opportunities this enquiry will certainly uncover. Please do get in touch if you have any thoughts or insights you would like to share with us and look out for further updates!

Ethan