Senior leader perspectives – The barriers and enablers to civic participation

What could this look like in Bexley?

We learnt from three exemplars that committed leadership was a vital feature to their establishment and continued success. Considering this, we deemed it necessary to gather senior leader perspectives on civic participation within Bexley. These conversations were designed in a way to gain insights on the following themes:

–           Why might we try to increase participation?

–           Is this right for Bexley and how far could we go?

–           What are the biggest opportunities / barriers and risks?

With interviewees coming from all service areas, we hoped to surface the tensions and commonalities that we assumed existed when discussing civic participation. We also hoped that we might identify which service areas might struggle with the agenda more than others.

In the spirit of openness we wanted to share what came out of these interviews. Our senior leaders were very honest and forthcoming with their thoughts and as colleagues we have been privileged to hear their perspectives.

What we found

The barriers

What is stopping the work moving forward? What are people worried about?

  1. Ceding control and sharing risk
  2. Thinking differently about purpose and role 
  3. Uncertainty about impact and savings
  4. Lack of confidence and trust (in potential partners and collaborators)
1. Ceding control and sharing risk “There’s anxiety about transferring responsibilities from the Council to individuals”

“We’re very keen to minimise risk – it starts off being well-intentioned but ends up being ‘We might be sued. This might happen, what will our reputation look like?’ and we lose sight of the end point.”

2. Thinking differently about purpose and role  “This is about trying to change behaviours and expectations.”

“The massive shift of power is the hardest thing about this whole programme”

3. Uncertainty about impact and savings “Why would you do this? Better outcomes, better lifestyles, a better place to live and ultimately to save money. I’m not convinced that it could save money. Until I can touch and feel the savings, the investment in things like prevention scare me.”

“It’s scale that brings benefit – the odd person here and there doesn’t make a difference to us. It’s good for the relationship, but nowhere in terms of the savings. You’ve got to nurture it, got to start small. But how quickly can you bring it up to the capacity and speed that can have an impact?”

“…It’s the length of time it takes to do this. Even if we say yes or no, we won’t see really tangible significant change for 5 to 10 years.”

4. Lack of confidence and trust (in potential partners and collaborators) “We are very entrenched in the view that volunteers can add a bit of value, but let’s not trust them to do anything meaningful.”

“I don’t know that we’ve done enough to understand where our community are at the moment. If there’s a capacity to transfer, how strong are our communities?”

The enablers

What might enable this work?

  1. Moving to action (with a leap of faith)
  2. Having honest conversations
  3. Developing a compelling Bexley narrative 
  4. Learning more about our communities (and how to work with them)
  5. Involving the wider system 
  6. Seeking external investment and support
  7. Encouraging bold leadership
  8. Being prepared to change, radically
  9. Focusing on the longer-term vision 
1. Moving to action (with a leap of faith) “Let’s have a go. We’ve got nothing to lose now have we? Unless someone says there’s a better plan to get better outcomes with less money, and I’m not hearing anyone coming forward with it.”
2. Having honest conversations “We need to have a grown-up conversation with the right people in the organisation to resolve our attitude to risk.”
3. Developing a compelling Bexley narrative  “We could create a very compelling narrative. Cohesion, 17th fastest changing borough, competitive land values, industrial heritage and the artisan movement. We don’t embrace that yet. We should.”
4. Learning more about our communities (and how to work with them) “I don’t know that we’ve done enough to understand where our community are at the moment. If there’s a capacity to transfer, how strong are our communities?”
5. Involving the wider system  “How do you bring partners into this? The Council can push this, but what do you do if partners are pushing the other way? We all need to be clear what we’re trying to achieve.”
6. Seeking external investment and support “I think we need a strong, external injection – we can’t describe this in detail and resolve all the challenges, because we haven’t been on that journey.”
7. Encouraging bold leadership  “We need to have someone who is prepared to lead from the front, go out and get the investors and hold the nerve.”

“We haven’t got a director responsible for gearing up the community to do more – it’s a mixture of Places, Community and Infrastructure, Adults and Children’s – it cuts across the whole thing. But how do you join it up? Who is owning that vision and that journey? “

8. Being prepared to change what we do – radically “The Council developed its role over numerous years. We need to re-think what it should be now it’s stepping back.”

“How do you get that shift in people’s heads from the Council being a welfare state, municipal provider that meets everyone’s needs, to enabling residents, communities, neighbourhoods to support themselves as far as possible?”

9. Focusing on the longer-term vision   “One of the key things that’s come across from everything I’ve seen is the length of time it takes to do this. Even if we say yes or no in October, we won’t see really tangible significant change for 5 to 10 years.”

As you can see, within the Bexley context at least, civic participation is very much a nuanced agenda. Service areas and leaders are very much aware of the challenges and opportunities ahead. We hope that by pulling this list together it will help us navigate towards a world of better outcomes and further participation for citizens. We’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts on our findings, please do get in touch.

Ethan Howard – Service Design and User Researcher