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Sparking civic activism

Barking and Dagenham is a London borough at the east of the city - hugging the north side of the River Thames. Over the last twenty years our communities have undergone unprecedented change – growth in population size and diversity, deindustrialisation, and persistent austerity. While much has changed, outcomes for our residents have remained stubbornly low, with the borough often 31st out of 31 London boroughs for core wellbeing indicators.

In 2006, 12 British National Party councillors were elected to the council. As much as this reflected the pace of local demographic change, disaffection was also the result of economic challenges facing residents, with huge job losses from the closure of a Ford Factory and the loss of much social housing as a result of the Right to Buy Policy. We knew we needed to change our relationship with our residents and invite them to influence the changes that they see all around them. So, we started by trying some different ways of working with residents and partners in practice, rather than setting out a strategy in the first instance.

Working with local people to create local change

The approach we have taken centres around listening, learning together, open and honest dialogue, accepting risk, collaboration, and creating platforms for residents to define what good looks like themselves. Four core examples of this approach are:

  • Connected Communities (funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and & Local Government): a collaborative project bringing together 11 third sector partners, a research consultancy, and the local authority, that aims to deliver innovative solutions to enable cohesion and integration using a combination of big data and community led research, to generate community-owned solutions.
  • Engaging residents in the development of a 20-year vision for the borough: Barking and Dagenham Together - Borough Manifesto, and the Good Neighbour Guide - an initiative to outline what it means to be a B&D resident which emerged as part of our conversations and engagement with residents.
  • Neighbourhood Community Infrastructure Levy (NCIL) Residents Panel: a platform which sees local residents chosen at random (through a technical process called sortition) to debate and deliberate over how a pot of money raised through new development in the borough should be spent on community projects locally.
  • Every One Every Day: a landmark participation project in partnership with Participatory City, in which the council has invested £1.5 million in over five years, to attract £6 million in additional funding, allowing residents to generate their own collaborative projects and businesses.

A shift in culture and collaboration with great partners

There are a number of core elements that have supported us to take forward our ambitions to work in a new way:

  • Whilst austerity has posed a number of challenges. There was a commitment both politically and at senior officer level to seize those opportunities with our residents and partners and imagine what the future could hold.
  • We have worked to shift the culture with a greater appetite for risk, starting by admitting that we didn’t know the destination and being comfortable with that.
  • We were and are data rich - and see insight as one of our greatest assets alongside an understanding of our community and key issues and tensions. Data was used to inform bids and opportunities to create the fertile conditions to attract funding in a time of austerity.
  • Our partnership with Participatory City has been pivotal. While this involved building a unique partnership with a number of other investors – it also demanded financial backing from the council at a time of unprecedented resource constraint, on the premise that embedding a participation culture could and would support upstream prevention as well as a number of other challenges. While we had no doubt it could, generating buy in from everyone was a challenge and took time, understanding and patience.

Residents at the heart of the work

Myron Rogers famously said “Start anywhere and follow it everywhere” when working in living systems. This is something we’ve been consistently inspired by. Local government can have a habit of writing strategies – which too often start everywhere and get you nowhere. So when we started this journey, we wanted to start by doing – not saying. This was critical because our residents and communities felt so strongly that we weren’t listening to them, that their voices didn’t matter.

We want people and communities to have agency, power and influence and we seek to create the conditions for some of that to happen where we can as a local authority. Seeing residents on the NCIL Panel debate how to spend public money in their communities – and deliberate with nuance and sensitivity, was a real reminder that people are our greatest resource; and we must find ways for it to become its life-blood in future.

If you are thinking about changing the relationship and forging a new way of working with communities, start by thinking about three things:

  1. Stop asking “can we?” and ask, “how can we?”. This requires a shift in mindset and some determination on all sides, but core to making things happen. As part of this, when it comes to letting communities take the lead in their own neighbourhoods, having a dedicated person inside the authority can cut red tape and make processes for practical participation easier. In my team, we have an incredible “fixer” dedicated specifically to this.
  2. Start small. There will be contradictions but don’t get disillusioned. It’s not possible to perfect everything at once – and there are many systems operating at scale far above the local level and beyond any individual’s control. The best you can do is map what you have influence over, and bring together a team of energetic, dedicated people who believe change is possible within an authorising environment.
  3. Understand that we don’t know the destination – but we are on the path. We really don’t have all the answers at all and should be humble enough to listen, trust, share power and journey with the willing.

A bold new future

We know that the future is greater practical participation, where communities have the space and resources to generate their own solutions and enterprises. The future is civic participation; with community budgeting moving from the fringes of our community development to the core of commissioning.

Our hope and dream is that one day, Barking and Dagenham will be as well known for its community led, civic activism as it is for it’s manufacturing of Ford cars. With the articulation of the political leadership’s model of ‘civic socialism’ locally, we’ve put a stake in the ground, making a commitment to change the relationship between the citizen and the state, empowering individuals and the community to take greater control over their own lives and neighbourhoods. We’re on a journey with the support of lots of great partners including Lankelly Chase, Collaborate, VCSE local partners, Participatory City, and of course most importantly the local people shaping the approach to enable Barking and Dagenham to thrive.

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

Monica Needs

Monica is Head of Participation and Engagement for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and has worked for over 15 years in the borough.