Building participation that promotes community cohesion

Carly Walker-Dawson looks at the actions UK local and regional governments can take to promote community cohesion alongside partners at place level.

Cultura Creative, Shuttershock

Cultura Creative, Shuttershock

Building community cohesion is a long-term venture — one that takes time, energy and a lot of persistence. Sadly, there is no magic wand. So where to start?

One of the biggest challenges to community cohesion on a local level is divisions based on entrenched inequities, and competition — real or perceived — for jobs, social security, public services and housing. This is even more stark after years of austerity followed by a cost of living crisis. The result? Distrust, fractures, and increased crime and anti-social behaviour. We have seen glimmers of hope in recent years — most visibly the way communities came together during the Covid pandemic.

Public participation is a long-term solution towards greater community cohesion. This can be approached in two ways. The first is the contact-based approach — bringing people together and facilitating interactions between individuals and groups. Deliberative participation can lower the visibility line so that people understand the needs, fears and values beneath surface positions, creating common ground. This is cohesion in an idealised world, represented by frequent and positive interactions — between community members, but also with public institutions.

The second approach is a targeted approach, where participation addresses imbalances so that more voices (not just the ones that shout loudest) are heard in decision making, leading to more equitable solutions. If done well, this creates policy, programmes and services that are better attuned to inequities. In both cases, community relations benefit from people being encouraged to take part in public life in their local areas.

A 2006 white paper on the future of local government called for more public participation to "help build cohesive and self-confident communities". Their vision for 2020 was to see "thriving and prosperous places where people from all different backgrounds are equal, and where everyone matters". Most people in the UK would likely agree this is not what local communities looked like in 2020, nor in 2024. So how do we actually get there?

At my organisation, Involve, we want to create a better, more vibrant democracy, where everyone can shape a society that works for us all. Part of our work is creating tools that help people do participatory processes on the ground. One tool is our practical framework for community cohesion — here are my key takeaways about how to do high quality participation that promotes community cohesion:

  1. Bring people together on a common cause or issues that matter. This is much more likely to generate enthusiasm and engagement than asking people about abstract debates to ascertain values or visions.
  2. Don't replicate work that's already been/being done. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. Work with civil society organisations and community leaders. Map existing activities and go to where people are. Work out who the community catalysts are. Make sure those making decisions are linked up with those delivering on the ground.
  3. Put equity at the centre of your participatory processes. Think about who is and isn't involved in decision making already. You do not need to seek statistical representation at all costs, but rather you should justify how participants have been selected. Go beyond self-selecting groups, incentivise people to take part, and consider mixed method approaches that target those typically least heard.
  4. Talk less and do more. Have a flexible, action-focused approach. Make what you're doing is suitable to the local context and the people involved. To do this, you need to really understand the communities you are working with. And make sure you are clear where inputs will land in a policy, initiative or service.

Local government budgets are tight — I've seen this firsthand. It's important more than ever to be economical. Engagement can help with multiple objectives: a primary outcome of policy, programmes or services working better first-time round, with a secondary outcome of community cohesion. In the longer-term, this will reduce pressures from community ruptures and effects of inequity. Our framework provides the practical guidance for local and regional authorities, among others, to do this work themselves.

Involve is a charity that also supports practical delivery of participatory processes, capacity building, standards setting, thought leadership and strategy development. Please reach out if you'd like a conversation about how we can work with you.

Carly Walker-Dawson is director of capacity building and standards at public participation charity Involve


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