Local government and basic community outreach


Sometimes you have to set an example by your actions in the hope that others – including institutions, will act upon it

That’s what I spent an afternoon doing this week: Wandering around South Cambridge with a series of posters that looked something like the one below.

Limoncello's on Mill Road put my poster on their front door, advertising council area committee meetings
Limoncello’s on Mill Road put my poster on their front door, advertising council area committee meetings

Late last year I rushed back from a workshop in London in the hope of asking a question I had submitted in advance to the South Area Committee, but a delayed train meant I missed my slot. At that meeting other than those interested in planning items were just a small handful of people who had turned up to cross-examine councillors. Six at most. Depressing given that we were in a state-of-the-art room at Homerton College. Even more depressing was the lack of use of audio-visual on some of the planning applications.

Now, while I could throw lots of questions at councillors – especially on social media and on youth engagement, being a lone voice means I risk becoming one of those ‘usual suspects’ that councillors have to put up with, rather than engaging the issues that I’m raising. After all, how many votes are there in social media and youth engagement? Hardly anyone in Cambridge currently uses social media to engage with their councillors – so the latter keep telling me, and under-18s can’t vote, so why bother?

Why bother? Because democracy matters

And also because, as I said in this blogpost, I can’t do everything on my own. I also think I’ve reached the current limits of what tweeting, blogging and turning up to council meetings can achieve. Councils and councillors know I tweet through Puffles, know I blog, know that I turn up to some council meetings and are aware of my professional background in the civil service and local government policy. But so what? Listening and responding positively to me might get me off their backs for a bit, but will it get councillors in my ward any extra votes and will it make any difference for a minimal increase in their existing workloads?

Turning up to the opening of an envelope or a front door

Throughout 2013 – particularly the autumn, I made it my business to turn up to lots of things in listening & questioning mode – no matter how big or small the gathering. In many cases, I blogged about these things too – see here. With that, along with my work as a school governor I gained insights into my part of South Cambridge that few others have. But how do you communicate those insights? What do you do when you come across people and/or institutions that seem to be putting unnecessary barriers in the way? How do you deal with the risk of raising then dashing expectations?

Audience segmentation – or trying to work out the make up of your local area

I pulled this slide from a recent FOI request from the Department for Communities and Local Government – one that I became aware of in a previous policy role over five years ago.

What does your community look like?
What does your community look like?

One of the things I’m continuing to ask Cambridge City Council is to do an exercise that gives us a picture where the above-mentioned groups of people happen to be: ‘Mapping the community’ so to speak. I made the request to a meeting of the full council in July 2013 – see the public questions bit in the minutes here.

Another example of identifying different parts of the community is one I produced three years ago. Here, I try to plot different parts of the community over a matrix of grassroots community action over a level of connectivity to the internet and social media.

Trying to work out what sort of person might be given their level of community activism and level of internet/social media use
Trying to work out what sort of person might be given their level of community activism and level of internet/social media use

This is what I mean by ‘mapping the community’ – finding out who the individuals and groups are in which parts of the city. Once you have done that, you can then target the different groups according to what their needs and skills are.

“What do you mean by ‘targeting’?”

Take the matrix diagram.

‘Victor Meldrew’

I’ve deliberately and pejoratively used the term ‘Victor Meldrew’ to describe someone who doesn’t want to get involved with their local community and who hates the internet as conscious choices. (As opposed to wanting to access both but is prevented from doing so by whatever barriers). With limited resources, will trying to reach out to those hostile to both give a decent return, or will you have more success elsewhere?

Local activists who are not online

There’s no point in trying to target these people who are already active in the community with a ‘get involved in your local community’ message. They already do that. Targeting them with a message such as:

‘You are already active in your community – which is brilliant. There are also some things happening online that you might be interested in – how can we help you be part of those conversations and actions as well?’

This is tailoring your actions to the needs of your community. You don’t need to teach them about community action, but they may need support on using the internet and social media.

High-frequency users of the internet/social media

These people might be those that commute and spend lots of time on public transport. They may also use the internet as part of their job. They might also be younger people at school, college or university that have grown up with the internet always being there. Yet none of them may have ever been approached on how to use skills that might come naturally to them in a manner that helps improve their local area. In this case it’s not teaching them about social media – they already know that. It’s about encouraging them to use their skills in a manner that helps improve their communities. This is what the Shape Your Place team in Cambridgeshire is trying to achieve.

Going where the people are – back to community outreach basics

Having realised that there’s only so much I can do online and at council meetings – and hit a bit of a brick wall, I thought the next thing I needed to do was to tell people about these council meetings so as to increase pressure on councillors and the council. But how?

Simple: Go where the people are.

I then asked myself the following:

“Where are the places where there are lots of people combined with noticeboards that are easily read?”

I made a list of places in my mind then headed off to my local library to design and print some posters. (Yeah – the council aren’t paying me for the costs either!) I then wandered around various parts of South Cambridge putting up posters telling people when and where some of these council meetings were happening, and inviting them to come along and put their questions to councillors. I put up posters (similar to the one at the top of the page) at the following:

  • Two supermarkets
  • Two primary schools
  • One ‘Sure Start’ centre
  • One cafe
  • One church
  • One Post Office
  • One library

The message is both an invitation and a challenge. Assuming that people have either gripes, moans or ideas, it challenges them to ‘take ownership’ of the issues and of the councillors and put questions to them. Essentially saying ‘Here is something you can do about it because these people are accountable to you.’

Will it make any difference?

If a couple of new faces turn up to each meeting listed, I’ll consider it a job well done. A tiny pin-prick in the grand scheme of things, true. Yet in the conversations that I had with various people as I wandered around the neighbourhood, I noticed the following:

  • People mentioned that they had never heard of these meetings before – no one had ever invited them to come along to them
  • Not one single outlet in my community refused me request to put up a poster on their notice boards or in their windows. In Limoncello’s case, they put the notice on their front door at eye level, making it hard to miss.

“Why didn’t anyone think of this before?”

You tell me.

In all seriousness though, I think that both cuts and the depoliticisation of society and of ‘civic society politics’ in recent decades has meant that some of the things that used to happen no longer do. Local government has been falling on an ever-shrinking activist base, whether council officers or local party political activists. In an era where political party brands are absolutely toxic, and where there are now so many public forums where people can throw hate and abuse, I’m not surprised that few people want to get involved in local government politics. Even more so given the scale of the cuts and the nature of their implementation – where full-time councillors on part-time salaries have to face a torrent of abuse on deciding where cuts should fall even though they have absolutely zero say on why there should be cuts in the first place. For those not aware, councils get the vast majority of their funding from central government grants, not through council taxes. They also have over 1,000 statutory duties that The Law says they have to meet. (See page 4 of this publication from the National Audit Office).

“So…how is any of this going to change things?”

It’s a long slog – a very long slog.

Unappealing in a world of instant gratification. As I found out the hard way. When I put together the matrix mentioned above in 2011, I assumed that I’d be able to put in place a plan within 6 months of approaching the local council. Ha ha! Like that was ever going to happen. In that sense, I significantly over-estimated my ability to influence local councils and councillors – the reason being because at work, whenever I had phoned up a local authority to ask for something, it was done then and there. When you don’t have a department of state behind you, why should they bother? Hence having to put in the hard work to try and earn the respect of the people not on social media, and institutions rather than saying ‘Look at all of Puffles’ followers!’.

The long slog is how it’s going to have to be

It takes time to build up decent working relationships. That said, we’ve had some notable successes in the work several of us have done in recent times – not least the free social media surgeries I volunteer at with Cambridge Online. We started with about 3 a year, but such is the demand that we are now running them once a month – see here.

This is one of the points I am trying to get across to councils and councillors: The data does not lie. More and more research is pointing to increased take up of social and digital media – see this from OfCom.

Imagination and leadership from councillors

My personal challenge is to help increase the number of local residents that interact with their local councillors and to increase the quality of those conversations too – whether offline or online. My challenge to local councillors is this: Can they show some imagination and leadership on community engagement, youth engagement and social media?

Even the most active social media users on the council have told me that local residents are not using social media to communicate with them. I take their point with that being the current baseline. But how many of us want to stay at a baseline where turnout is so low? How many of us want to stay in an environment where local government politics is a clique run by councillors, a handful of party activists and a few independent types keeping an eye on them? What are the opportunities that we are missing? Hence trying to spark some imagination with these slides.

Next step for 2014: Going multi-media

I’ve signed up for a basic digital film-making course at Hills Road – 2 hours a week for 10 weeks which suits me fine. I’ve got the kit, but not the confidence. With some of the ideas I have for short clips, my premise is this: Impact will be far greater using audio-visual rather than text alone.

Watch this space.


4 thoughts on “Local government and basic community outreach

  1. As somebody who is probably pretty close the “Victor Meldrew” based on your graph I feel I should justify my position.

    Up and down the country there are hundred of people who get worked up about politics. Look on twitter you will see people always trying to actively engage with politics. If you wish to seem some examples of it please look here: –

    Alternatively if you want to read some “thoughtful” comments on immigration please look at the comments section here: –

    In all seriousness the people sending abuse tweets to George Osborne or writing silly comments like “no more immigrants the country is full” on BBC forums arguably are connected (there are on their computers) and they are engaged (they are actively follwing politics). However their engagement is often useless and in some cases counter-productive to things that are probably in their longer term interest (eg. cutting immigration to ensure British people get British jobs could easily hold back growth meaning less overall jobs for British people). .

    My suspicion is actually many of the “Victor Meldrews” that you have identified are in fact rather the opposite. They have looked at the complexity of politics, judged that the people in charge are doing a passable job (or that it couldn’t easily be done hugely better) and therefore they have opted out and focused on more domestic challenges (job promotion and/or parenting). In fact they have probably concluded that getting actively involved would make them look more like a “Victor Meldrew”… and assuming what gets written on internet comment boards and twitter is statistically representative of how the country thinks (and I really hope it isn’t) there is a good chance they are right!

    Most people in this country luckily have their basic needs met (food/housing/heating etc). Given this unless they hold some dogmatic positions (hard left socialists or swivel-eyed Tories/UKIPpers) or they are wannabe career politicians they see getting involved as a waste of time which could be better focused on bettering their lot.

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