Successful community initiatives should not depend on having friends in high places

By Luca Tiratelli | 03 June 2020

Projects managed and run by communities have radical potential – they have the power to transform places and the lives of people who live within them.

Yet many community initiatives simply die on the vine, never developing to the point where they can make a real difference.

There are, of course, many factors that affect whether initiatives grow into something successful and enduring.

However, research currently underway at NLGN suggests that the biggest single factor determining this is the attitude of local government.

As part of a forthcoming project on community mobilisation, we’ve spoken to a range of grassroots projects working in a variety of areas, including housing, social care and public health.

All of these initiatives have been hugely successful, and were approached exactly for that reason.

When asked about what enabled them to get to that point, almost all of them talked about the importance of having an ally - an individual or small group within local government that could advance their agenda.

These are the rare, change-making people that NHS’ chief transformation officer, Helen Bevan, called spark plugs at NLGN’s Stronger Things conference.

In the stories we heard, these allies often had to go way beyond the remit of their job description to open doors and lobby on behalf of community groups, putting in immense time and energy due to a sincere belief in what they were doing.

There is a reading of these stories is that is heartening – as they prove that individuals working in local government can make a real difference to the communities they serve.

But is the reality not actually that these stories are also an indictment of the status quo?

It suggests that in order to be successful, community initiatives need to have friends in high places.

It doesn’t take much thinking through to anticipate what kind of community groups are going to be disadvantaged by this.

It also makes you think of how many potentially transformative and positive community initiatives have withered and died simply because they were never able to speak to the right people in their local council.

The wasted potential is impossible to quantify, and all the more tragic as a result.

We know that council officers are busy, that they are facing immense stresses on their time and energy, and that many community development teams have been cut.

They cannot then be expected to go above and beyond to drive through change on behalf of community groups.

Successful community initiatives should not be happening in spite of the system – it must instead happen because of the system.

Reimagining local government so that it can be genuinely facilitative of community ideas is a daunting process.

In the short term, this will mean investing in employees and teams specifically so that they can help community groups to navigate the council.

In the longer term, it will mean thinking about changing internal cultures and practices so that they are facilitative.

This could perhaps be bought about by empowering resurrected community development teams to focus on internal, as well as external change.

Perhaps this could be led by the original allies or spark plugs themselves.

However it is approached, there is good news for those interested in making this change happen.

For one thing, the coronavirus crisis, and the mutual aid groups that have sprung up to respond to it, are changing old habits and incentivising councils to learn new things, including trialling new ways of engaging with communities.

Indeed, multiple councils we’ve spoken to for a forthcoming report into mutual aid have reflected on how much they have learned about this kind of work in as such a short period of time.

In our recent Leadership Index survey of council heads, a staggering 96% said community groups had been significant or very significant to their attempts to tackle COVID-19.

Hopefully this can be the start of a revolution in how councils approach community groups.

Very few businesses are made or broken by the actions of local government.

But for the community sector, this has been one of the hardest relationships for them to manage.

Another way is possible.

Luca Tiratelli is a policy researcher for the New Local Government Network think-tank

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