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Supporting diverse communities to lead

With over 300 languages spoken amongst nearly 9 million residents, there’s no denying that London really is home to citizens from every corner of the world. Building meaningful partnerships with London’s diverse communities and addressing inequalities in voice and power is a key priority for us at the Greater London Authority (GLA). Working in the Community Engagement team, my team and I develop mechanisms to engage citizens in policy making, ensuring that the lived experiences of all Londoners sets the agenda at City Hall.

Championing lived experience in public policy making

One of many ways in which we do this is the Citizen Led Engagement programme. Delivered in partnership with community organisations, we offer training and grants of up to £10,000 for local organisations to carry out their own peer research projects by recruiting community based researchers.

Through this programme, we aim to:

  1. Strengthen our connection and engagement with communities whose voice and influence on public policy is under-represented
  2. Identify and develop community leaders in those communities
  3. Gain insights that others within the Greater London Authority can learn from and act on

Acknowledging barriers & supporting diverse communities to lead

This project was developed at a time when the Community Engagement team was reflecting on how City Hall engages with Londoners, and how it could embed more creative and innovative mechanisms to bring under represented citizen voices into policy making. It was clear to us that there were some communities that City Hall had weaker connections with and we had to recognise that more traditional forms of engagement are not accessed equally.

In order to make this project a success, it was crucial that we understood and addressed the different barriers that might prevent people from marginalised communities from participating. This involved being very intentional with how we communicated the opportunity, hosting information sessions across London, and being conscientious about relative power dynamics. When asked to provide feedback, we were really pleased that the evaluation found that the community groups felt that they were commanding the work, with our team playing an enabling rather than a controlling role.

We also focused on securing buy in from other teams at City Hall to create space for the degree of flexibility that would be required to make the project successful. We knew that this was necessary to achieve our ambitions.

Beyond research: Developing dynamic and reciprocal relationships with London’s many communities

Developing policies that meet the needs of this many diverse Londoners creates a huge amount of complexity, but equally allows City Hall to tap into significant community assets. Working in partnership with communities and supporting community led engagement allows us to develop a deeper understanding of the different ways in which Londoners experience the city. The project focuses on some of the most marginalised voices in public policy, and challenges us to work with communities on the things that they feel are important to them rather than predetermined policy priorities.

We know that different communities can have very different experiences of navigating and flourishing in the city, and that needs to be reflected in how policies are designed and delivered. Whilst data and research can help us understand some of this nuance, it depends on us asking communities the right questions.

Crucially the project goes beyond research, by developing more dynamic and reciprocal relationships with London’s many communities. The programme develops skills, knowledge and capabilities for groups, whilst also adding nuance and depth to policy development. Many of the groups went beyond the research itself and carried out wider community engagement as well.

For example, the London Bulgarian Association organised walks across London for members of their community and other Londoners, as well as arranging a rose planting event in a public space in the City of Westminster. This garden had been neglected for many years. By participating in this project, the community was galvanised and the space was transformed. Roses are the national flower of Bulgaria and England, and this activity created an opportunity for different residents to come together.

Whilst the extent of such activity varied across projects, all projects had some element of specific community engagement. This is notable, as without it the project would have felt like much more of a process than an active and creative community-led project.

My key advice to anyone making this shift and working with the local community to shape their places together:

  • The ‘little things’ matter
    It’s so important not to underestimate the power of the ‘little things’ in developing close connections to communities. For examples, providing venue space or event platforms for communities to share their stories, attending community events or helping make introductions and connections. By making the process of navigating the GLA easier, community groups tend to feel more confident in our ambition to engage meaningfully with them, which in turn leads to greater trust and stronger relationships in the long-term

  • Embrace the discomfort
    Two questions we ask ourselves when carrying out engagement are:
    • Who is not here?
    • What are the limits of our own abilities?
      The answers to these questions often take us out of our comfort zone and towards confronting gaps in our knowledge and our networks. We tend to rely on quantifiable answers and think tank research, but community engagement surfaces equally important qualitative data and voices. Step away from the absolutes and embrace the discomfort of the unknown - it helps us get things right the first time

  • Be honest about what is and isn’t up for grabs
    We use terms like ‘co-design’ and ‘community-led’ all the time, but too often this is without having properly thought through what those terms mean in practice. Meaningful co-design means being truly willing to develop your policy and process in partnership with the community, and ultimately concede some control. The reality may fall some way short of this. By being honest and transparent about exactly what we’re asking of communities and what might change as a result, the community will have far greater respect for a process that they can trust, where their impact is clear, even if limited.

A significant time for shift in relationship between the state and communities

I think we are in a really exciting time where there are significant shifts in how we understand the relationship between the state and communities. There is increasing recognition of the need to work at a systemic level, which recognises the complexity of inter-relationships between different sectors and the importance in addressing power and its imbalance. This creates fertile ground for us to develop new models of partnership that recognise we are all part of the system we are trying to affect.

In order for the public sector to flourish, I think there is a need for space to reflect and be challenged, so that we consistently interrogate our approach and push ourselves to imagine what is possible. With any attempts to change the status quo, there is a danger that we adopt new terminology but the underlying process remains the same.

Many localities are treading new ground in relation to citizen engagement, and significantly overhauling processes. I have been really interested in Bristol City Council’s One City Plan for this very reason. It sets out a city-wide governance framework to break down silos and bring people together for a collaborative journey. It recognises that in order to achieve the ambitions of meaningful citizen engagement, there needs to be a paradigm shift in city governance. As with all initiatives and efforts to change, there may be many iterations to this style of working before we get it right, but I hope that all partners lean in to the complexity of this work and persevere together.

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

Farah Elahi

Farah Elahi is a Community Engagement Team Manager at the Greater London Authority, her research has focused on ethnic inequality in London, employment and education.