In 2016 Southend-on-Sea Borough Council commissioned Traverse to help them build a vision for Southend’s future, rooted in a programme of iterative and flexible community engagement.
We designed an approach which moved beyond traditional and formulaic consultation, and where the key output from the process would not simply be a vision statement. Instead, the emphasis has been on taking local people on a journey from sharing their ambitions and ideas to supporting them to remain involved and help to achieve them. At each workshop, we reiterate the message this this cannot be about ‘dumping ideas on the council’ – but about exploring how local resources in their widest sense can make good things happen.
We began by facilitating workshops with council staff from across the organisation, challenging them to reflect on the ways in which the council will need to change in order to support the sort of future they want to see for the borough. We then ran a series of open space-style workshops in the community with a range of local people – from young parents on a housing estate to voluntary sector representatives to residents’ associations. The underpinning principle of the work has been that ideas are just the start, and that building networks and confidence and motivation around engagement are also key aspects of the legacy we are trying to create through this work.
Flexibility is essential in making the engagement process work – there is no predetermined and fixed approach to reaching into communities. Some engagement takes place through structured 3 hour workshops, some through one-to-one conversations (e.g. in a Surestart parent and toddler session), some through drop-in and chat formats.
Following a pause in the programme in 2017, the work during 2018 has been reshaped to feed into the ambitious Southend 2050 programme. This has involved deliberative events with a cross-section of residents to help us understand the choices they would make about Southend’s future when faced with certain challenges and trade-offs. Most recently, we have drawn together the key findings from across the engagement work to help councillors and senior managers to start translating the views and ideas of local people into a vision for the borough.
As well as bringing residents into discussions about the future beyond traditional consultation, our work is helping to build the capacity of council teams to undertake large-scale participatory work with partners and communities.