And if you’re not doing all three, are you really doing any of them?
Traverse’s work with councils has always been hugely varied – research and evaluation, citizen engagement, developing teams and shaping strategy, and other weird and wonderful things besides. Through that work, we’re seeing that more and more councils are up for trying bold and inventive things to tackle local challenges in spite of – or because of – the constraints they face. There are three in particular areas of activity that interest me:
- Systems leadership – developing the skills for collaborative leadership across whole local systems, rather than just within a team or organisation;
- Community engagement – getting beyond traditional, two-dimensional and often quite transactional forms of public consultation and re-thinking what it means to involve citizens in shaping services and places;
- Asset-based community development (ABCD) – building the capacity of a community in ways that are rooted in the assets people have, rather than their ‘deficits’.
All three are proving of interest to councils, and that’s definitely a good thing. But are enough councils interested in all these things at once?
As we help councils to think in terms of systems and to develop the skills and behaviours that make leading in those systems more effective, we can see how their approaches to community engagement don’t always match-up. Residents, service users, communities – they are a huge part of any local system. So, you can support your staff and members to be ‘systems thinkers’ but if you don’t update your approaches to community engagement in tandem, you’re going to get stuck.
Likewise, you can overhaul how you engage people – changing the format of engagement events and processes, introducing more deliberative activity and more genuine co-design – but if the outputs of that creativity and relationship-building come up against an organisational machine that doesn’t ‘get’ systems and collaboration, it might all be in vain. Or if you’re all fired-up about the value of ABCD but your senior leaders just see it as an ‘engagement thing’ and don’t appreciate the cultural change it might demand amongst officers and members, then once again, real impact gets stifled.
By contrast, imagine a place where ABCD is at the heart of how you grow citizen involvement and strengthen community; where engagement really is engaging and connects directly to how things are designed and delivered; and where leaders understand how they need to work to harness all the skills and energy in a patch, whether its inside or outside of their organisation.
So in the next 12 months we’ve decided that want to do more to help join the dots between these routes to local transformation and change. We want to work with more councils to figure out what it looks like to successfully work on systems, engagement and community development in parallel, based on our belief (and we may be wrong) that all need to slot together if they’re really going to have the impact we know they can have.
There won’t be one way to do this, and the principle of starting anywhere and following the energy is a good one. But whether you’re a council that’s embarking on setting its vision or strategy, is setting it right now or already has one that you’re all working to achieve, we think you need to be making the connections between all three. If you are, we’d love to know how you’re doing it. And if you suspect you’re not but would like to think about this more, get in touch.
Rob Francis is the Head of Local Government and Head of Organisational Development at Traverse.
You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.