Using the IAP2 spectrum of participation councillors were surveyed to demonstrate whether they are in favour of participatory methods. This was for a masters dissertation looking to understand if local authorities in the UK have the right conditions to use participatory methods.
Problems and Purpose
With more pressure than ever on local authorities to use innovative methods to engage with citizens it is clear that some councils are leading the way and others are being left behind. This is a problem as it is creating unequal levels of participation across the UK. The purpose of this masters dissertation was to show whether one well known barrier to participation - political buy in - was hindering one borough council in Surrey from reaching its participatory potential.
Background History and Context
At the time of conducting this research I was working at Reigate and Banstead Council as a community development worker. Issues surrounding council employed community development workers have been explored in the past by academics such as Cockburn (1977). My own reflections coincided with beliefs that being council employed created a constant challenge of truly supporting residents to build capacity, but also pacifying those who have been elected. I did not feel engagement was empowering or meaningful a lot of the time and a large factor of this was due to political resistance.
Withdrawal of funding from central government has undoubtedly placed a large strain on councils to save money and commercialise. Within my role and context I felt this was coming at the cost of residents. I hoped that this dissertation could help collate a picture of the current position in terms of engagement with residents and be used as a spring board to drive forward to use of participatory methods, legitimising and improve decision making and, in turn, improving relations between the council and residents.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
There was no funding for this project as it was a masters dissertation but I was supported by my supervisor and teams within the council.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
There were 45 councillors that needed to be surveyed. Councillors were emailed the survey in the first instance and follow up phone calls were carried out to help increase response rate. Low response rates from councillors is common, this survey yielded a 58% response rate (26 of 45 councillors).
Methods and Tools Used
A survey was used and interviews were conducted with the Leader of the council and the portfolio holder (councillor responsible) for community partnerships.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The dissertation was reduced into a short presentation and infographic to highlight strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and strengths. This was presented to the councils senior leadership team and will be taken to members.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
This was a very useful way of consolidating councillor feelings towards participation. It is important to have a baseline when looking to employ participatory methods where they have not been used before, especially in a political setting, so you can ascertain what additional work is needed to ensure councillors are comfortable with relinquishing power and increasing citizen voice.
Due to time constraints (needing to submit the dissertation) there were no follow up sessions schedule where a two way conversation could be had between the researcher and councillor, or between councillors with differing views. From the responses in the survey a main concern amongst councillors was capacity of local people and trusting residents to make big decisions. If this work were to be replicated at another council I would recommend having sessions scheduled in that councillors can attend for once the deadline of the survey has been completed. This would provide a space were allies of participation can meet and discuss next steps, but also a space to work with those who are more hesitant and discuss their concerns in a supportive environment.