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A county that serves

Monmouthshire is a historic and beautiful rural border county in Wales, with no city. At a time when financial and economic resources are significantly decreasing, the one resource we have in abundant supply is social capital. Monmouthshire county is fortunate to have a long and healthy history of volunteering and local action which we continue to develop and build.

We engage our citizens through a number of targeted programmes, such as impact volunteering and involvement in priority setting and decision making opportunities in their own communities. In order to invest in people and support them to lead change at a local level, we recognise this involves us getting out of the way as an organisation and changing the way we traditionally do things. We work hard to create the right conditions to build trust with our communities and have found that when we ask the right questions and align with people’s motivations, great things happen.

Enabling local people to lead local change

Our programme ‘Monmouthshire – A County That Serves’ (ACTS) came from the belief that as an organisation, we should be enablers, supporting our communities to take action on the things that matter to them. Our Chief Executive visited New York, saw the Cities of Service movement in action and recognised the value that a co-ordinated and strategic volunteering approach could bring to Monmouthshire.

Our main aims are to overcome loneliness and social isolation, ensure every child gets the best possible start, address environmental challenges, and connect our communities. Some of the ways we have approached this, include:

  • Setting up volunteering programmes across every public facing area of our organisation ranging from Tourism Ambassadors that enhance the visitor experience, to hundreds of volunteers in schools providing support to our children and young people. For example, our Leisure department has 75 young volunteers passionate about sport who support us to deliver by sharing their skills with other young people.
  • Complimenting this approach with our Be. Community Leadership Programme, which offers training, networking and personal development opportunities for community volunteers. Through our programmes, we are not only supporting active citizens but in some cases developing employees of the future.
  • Ensuring more young people are being supported now than before, and that more opportunities are being offered to our citizens. Monmouthshire has 1300 local volunteers increasing our collective ability to support people across our county.

Learning from the best in the world to inform our culture and approach

We spent a period of time building relationships and discovering what works in communities and sectors across the world to inform a cohesive strategy. Effective relationships with third sector organisations were vital and we invested a considerable amount of time in this.

We used ‘Invest to Save’ funding to create dedicated resources with the Council, to coordinate and drive this forward. Before this coordinated approach, citizen engagement and volunteering support was carried out in an ad hoc and uncoordinated fashion, with little focus on organisational or community priorities.

One key challenge for us was shifting the culture of our organisation to embrace the changes needed to support volunteers. In some cases this required policy and behaviour changes, and we also made drastic improvements to our infrastructure. Working together with a range of partners, we aimed to create a collective of people who support and develop citizen engagement, volunteering and community involvement opportunities.

Building community, resilience and support

I grew up in a small mining town in the Welsh valleys where community was everything. People helping other people was the absolute norm and this close-knit community demonstrated resilience in challenging circumstances through supportive connections.

Previously working within the Youth Service I saw the incredible value volunteers offered the young people we supported, and the value the young people brought too. Increasing the number of volunteers brought in even more skills, knowledge and experiences and also allowed us to increase provision across the county. This was our breakthrough where we started to understand the untapped potential of passionate people in Monmouthshire. As an organisation we simply weren’t asking the right questions of our community.

Everyday we hear enormous stories of change and impact. At a recent get together, we heard from a community member who had been experiencing physical and mental health challenges. Working with the volunteering partnership they had become a community car scheme driver. By sharing their skills to support isolated members of the community to get out and about, both community wellbeing and his own wellbeing saw a monumental improvement that brought enormous pleasure to his day to day life. This is a win-win situation and where we focus on that we are starting to get things right.

My key advice to anyone making this shift and working with the community to make a big difference, in shaping their places together:

  • Keep it simple and be very honest – When engaging citizens we have found that being clear on what it is you are hoping to achieve, how people can get involved and the difference it is likely to make really works. This clarity encourages people that have matching motivations to come forward. It is at this point that the support and experience offered is critical.
  • Create a shared vision – There may already be people engaged in action in the area in which you are working. It is important that you take these individuals, groups and sectors with you, which can be very challenging and at times labour intensive. Ultimately, it is about everyone working towards improvements in their community in a collective way. Communication within your organisation is as important as outside the community.
  • Be brave and stick to your purpose – When working in large, risk-averse and sometimes inconsistent public sector organisations, both you and the methodology will be challenged internally and externally. This challenge can be directed to this new way of working with communities, and therefore can conflict with other organisational priorities - for example council income generation through the sale of assets. This way of working is a long-term investment and requires a change in mind-set because the benefits are not always felt in the short term by the organisation coordinating.
  • Ensure you have evidence and data - Monitoring outcomes is imperative for demonstrating what’s possible to those who do not believe in the methodology and those from whom you are seeking support. Having a clear, manageable set of measures has allowed us to gain more support on officer and political levels. This was not a strength of ours to begin with as we did not embed impact measurement across our organisation and partners. Being able to evidence the difference you have made is vital to long term sustainability and motivation.

Hopes for the future - how we will grow this work as public services with our communities

Going forward we will be less defined by sector boundaries and more unified by a common purpose in the public sector, where decisions by public bodies are consistently made considering social, environmental and economic benefits.

We are trying to reimagine our relationship with our communities, build trust and ensure the responsibility for challenges is shared equally between citizens and organisations like ours. In doing so, I hope we will reach a point in the future where ‘doing your bit’ in your community is again the norm.

In the future, I believe that public sector organisations will be much closer to the communities they serve and therefore much more aware of their needs. There needs to be a clearer understanding of the relationship between communities and public sector organisations and in many cases this will be very different from what has gone before.

Around the world local governments are plugging the power of citizens back into places, institutions, services and democracies. In this series, five public service innovators placing citizens at the heart of their work share their experiences on this journey.

Author

Owen Wilce

Owen is responsible for leading Monmouthshire County Council’s citizen engagement programme Monmouthshire- A County That Serves (ACTS) which is based on the Cities of Service model a...