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August 29, 2012

Exposing the lie

How good are public bodies when it comes to building effective working relationships with communities?  Despite huge investment over the years (National Standards, VOICE)  to improve the skills and to support the efforts of these public bodies, many still doubt whether much has actually changed. Interesting take on this from writer John Houghton who believes that the biggest lie ever told about poor neighbourhoods is that the people living there don’t care.



John Houghton, 26th July 2012 

The biggest lie ever told about told about poor neighbourhoods is that the people living there don’t care about the plans and decisions that affect them.

The lie takes multiple forms.

The complacent: ‘We’ve tried all sorts of things, meetings, open days, but you can’t get them out of the house.’

The pernicious: ‘They’ll be there, first thing at the post office, but that’s it. Then they’re back on the couch.’

The faux-compassionate: ‘Why should they get involved? If I was living hand-to-mouth, with all those kids, I wouldn’t sign up for some community panel.’

The lie persists because it fulfils the basic function of deceit: it comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted. It allows the powerful to blame poverty on the poor.

The lie is self-reinforcing. You hear it used every time people don’t respond to meaningless surveys or poorly advertised consultation exercises. ‘We did our best, we put posters in the community centre and everything, but nobody turned up. They just don’t care…’ We tried, they failed, let’s not bother next time.

For as long I’ve lived and worked in deprived neighbourhoods, I’ve heard the lie repeated again and again.

But I’ve also been a grateful witness and sometimes participant in endless examples of imaginative and thoughtful ways to engage people that expose the lie for the shoddy excuse it is.

A few projects I’ve encountered recently have used all sorts of unusual, and unusually effective, methods to involve people. Ice creams vans giving out lollies to children and sign-up forms to their parents. Free haircuts and chiropody for older people to start a conversation about what they like and dislike about their neighbourhoods. Free use of a skip. Surely the ultimate in unglamorous, lo-tech engagement? But everybody using it was asked to complete a quick survey about their estate, and how they’d like to see it improved.

A few years ago I worked with a New Deal for Communities project that had tried various ways to engage young men, a notoriously ‘hard-to-reach’ group, in decisions about the area. They weren’t just ticking a box. The levels of male unemployment and ill health were high. And as in so many other areas, boys were leaving school earlier and with fewer qualifications than girls, and subsequently faced a potentially uncertain and marginal future.

The project organised a weekend-long X-Box competition that engaged more young men than all the previous efforts combined. A few years later, some of the participants attended a focus group I was running.

When I asked why they were still involved, they were clear. Thinking back to the X-Box competition, they didn’t feel like they were being ‘engaged’ in some abstract exercise. It was just fun. But they’d been given something, so felt obliged to reciprocate. And they had a bit of appreciation and respect for the people who thought it up. The lads listened when the organisers talked, and they were talking about the other things the New Deal for Communities was doing. From the X-Box competition, they’d gone on to do work experience and training.

Some excellent recent research by Liz Richardson at the University of Manchester into ‘active citizenship and localism’ underlines the importance of real-world relevance. One of the headline findings from her research, which she presented at a recent seminar, is powerful in its simplicity:

‘Don’t assume what citizens want to be involved in – ask them. Give them things they want to do, not what you want them to do.’

The topic has to be relevant, the format simple and accessible, the value of people’s engagement appreciated and the potential outcomes clearly explained. Starting with issues that resonate on an immediate, tangible level can and should lead to wider discussions. But is has to be that way around.

Clearly, effective engagement requires some investment of increasingly scarce resources. We don’t have amply-funded programmes like the New Deal for Communities anymore (how’s that for under-statement?). But a good pile of money is still wasted on involvement exercises that generate little worthwhile intelligence.

And as Professor Marilyn Taylor argued in the recently revised edition of her book Public Policy in the Community, engagement done well saves money by creating better-informed decisions and energising people to think about what they can contribute locally. Done well, engagement leads to empowerment and a dissolution of the artificial and anti-democratic barrier between the governors and the governed.

I’m not arguing community engagement is easy, especially in the current climate. The sudden visibility of the vines of the corruption and cronyism that ensnake every pillar of the British establishment has generated a poisonous ozone of cynicism. In the spiralling recession economy, people face many and more urgent calls on their time and energy.

Communities who have lived through the failed promises of regeneration are rightly even more wary of getting involved in the latest grand project. They feel they were lied to, last time they got involved. Often they were. And those who didn’t get involved were lied about.

Engagement isn’t easy, but the logic of the lie has to be inverted and thereby destroyed. The burden of engagement shouldn’t be on people to find the time to respond to shallow and slapdash offers of consultation. It should be on those who claim they want to engage to find ways to energise and excite people to share their time, energy and stories. But if the lie goes unchallenged, nothing will change.