Civic Participation – A Voyage of Discovery

Over the past four months, I’ve been part of a small team of colleagues in Bexley working to gather insights and explore all things civic participation. This discovery work forms just a small part of several enquiries which we currently have underway. These enquiries recognise that we must strive for better outcomes for citizens, while making the best use of our energy and resources. By taking a design-led approach to this exploration, it’s empowering us to examine different and more radical approaches to some of our biggest questions.

For our Connected Communities enquiry, we started from the understanding that strong civic participation can create healthier and more resilient communities. Building on our Connected Communities strateg, plus local ideas and appetite for change, we have been learning much more about different forms of civic participation and unpicking what might work best for Bexley.

Earlier this week we held a workshop at the beautiful Hall Place, inviting colleagues from both within and external to the Council to join us in exploring the insights we gathered from our discovery.

This workshop guided participants through the journey we as a team have been on – zooming out and exploring three compelling cases where we felt there has been a very different approach.  We shared what we thought were the enablers and key features of each of the three case studies. We then zoomed back in, considering the output of a series of interviews we conducted with senior leaders in Bexley. These interviews explored their take on civic participation and what the ambition could be for the future of the borough, the council and its residents.

This blog will make up a series of posts where we will share our methodology and the artefacts we have gathered. We hope others will learn from this enquiry and join in the conversation. This first post will share our learnings with you, from across the case studies.

What’s interesting and compelling about civic participation? What new things did we learn?

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We explored three case studies where different approaches were being taken to civic participation: the Wigan Deal, Everyone Everyday in Barking and Dagenham and York’s  Cities of Service.

Through a series of conversations with colleagues from all three councils and organisations, as well as supplementary secondary research, we strived to answer some of our burning questions:

  • What were the conditions that enabled this model or approach to start?
  • What have been the most significant moments in the journey?
  • How did you articulate the idea and what the change meant?
  • What have been the most challenging moments?

Our exploration was structured to get under the skin of each of the exemplars to try and understand the commonalities. The key findings from our synthesis are outlined below.

Learning from across the case studies: Enablers

Why are others pursuing this? What is driving the work?

Better outcomes for citizens

Colleagues are pursuing this primarily because they believe it will bring benefit to citizens and communities – more resilient and connected communities, more citizen led civic activity.

The platform is burning

The challenges we face in terms of demographic change, increased demand and financial pressures mean the old way of doing things is no longer working. Radical change is needed.  

A radical rethink is better than stopping

In lean financial times, just stopping feels inadequate and may lead to bigger problems down the line. Better to rethink how finite resources are spent, and where new resources might be mobilised.

Major change is happening anyway

Colleagues are tapping into wider social movements and re-imagining the relationship between citizens and services, and citizens and the state. They are embracing the shift rather than holding firm against change.

Cashable savings are not the motivator 

Whilst sustainability and longer-term gains are part of the ambition, making savings is not the main driver. Finding and growing new capacity and unlocking/making better use of existing resources is much more important.

Reconnecting to vision, values and purpose 

These are visionary and values-driven agendas. The aim is that everyone feels more empowered and more connected to the things that matter – including professionals in the system.

Learning from across the case studies: Common Features

What features do the case studies share? What’s important for success?

Have a compelling narrative

The cases all have clear and compelling stories for why change is critical, what it will mean and how it will work – linked intimately to people and place. These stories help galvanise support for change and enable others to get involved.

Grow leadership, evangelists and champions 

Committed leadership is a feature of these cases. Leaders have brought a range of people on board (Members, Officers and partners across the wider community) and have ‘permission’ and support to act. Evangelists and champions are also important, helping keep momentum.

Try a tested approach and learn from others 

The cases all draw on tried and tested models and theories for how civic participation will be enabled and how change will happen. These may not be mature or ‘proven’ but they have usually been put into practice in more than locality. Colleagues are not starting from scratch.

Bring in external funding, support and partnerships

Colleagues are leveraging significant external funding, expertise and sometimes facilitation to do the work. Many are collaborating with national and international innovation agencies, such as Nesta and Bloomberg. In Barking and Dagenham, an external partner (Participatory City) has been the key enabler of the work rather than the Council.

Set high ambitions that involve communities at scale  

These are not just initiatives or programmes on the margins, but ambitious re-appraisals of how councils work with citizens and other partners to solve problems and create value. They fundamentally re-set ambitions, expectations and roles for everyone across the community. They all take a long-term view of outcomes (not about quick wins).

Take a leap of faith (and adapt as you go)  

Leaders who started these movements took a leap of faith. They felt staying still was not an option, so they just got started despite no assurance of success. Learning, reflection and evaluation are, however, central to making change. And most are part of communities of practice nationally and internationally, learning with localities on similar journeys.

Looking forward

We are only part way through our journey of exploring civic participation, with a view to hosting a further event post-summer, truly bottoming out our next steps. Please share your thoughts and comments on what we’ve found so far and watch out for the next post in this series: What could this look like in Bexley? The barriers and enablers.

Ethan Howard – Service Design and User Researcher

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