Consultation: Avoid the con’

The last few weeks I found myself on an estate facilitating a community consultation. It raised various challenges. Here are five insights:

1. Find the corporate memory

Here estate residents are frustrated at staff turnover in local authority departments. The churn of staff coming and goings generates an ‘institutional amnesia’ with new staff ‘forgetting’ decisions, key papers, documents, reports and findings from even recent consultations. Findings of previous consultations are ‘forgotten’. They forget they ever conducted consultations!

This is ‘institutional dementia’, where insight is lost, ignored or impossible to retrieve. This erodes confidence in local government and agency.

Dig around and find all the previous research and consultations you can. Bring it all together, on a website or at meetings. Find a way to summarise the research and recover the memory from previous studies.

2. Highlight uncoordinated plans 

Duplication happens all the time.  Councils commission, re-commission, inadvertently duplicating work going on in the office next door or down the corridor.

Competition between council departments hardly helps. This uncoordinated approach generates perceptions the local authority is unaware of work its doing.

Spot and challenge the lack of coordination and duplication. Highlight opportunities to collaborate between department and agency – finding ways to save cash.

3. Be clear it isn’t a stitch up

Residents talked about private contractors running consultations on behalf of the local authority. For residents, the contractors were ‘going through the motions’ – with no intentions of digging deep, finding reality and then producing recommendations informed by the findings. In fact the contractors and local authority had their plans.

The conflict of interest raises questions about the integrity of the consultation and the research findings. What is going on? What is the funders agenda?

Consultation is a great opportunity to promote the people, department and researchers – affirming the process and all those involved and invited to participate. It’s a moment to say options are open and this isn’t a stitch up. If you’re clear with the research funder the consultation isn’t a stitch up.

4. Find the Shops

You’d be surprised how much the ‘market place’, the centre of a community gets missed off conultations. Newsagents, grocers and adjacent bus stops have a big footfall.

I once surveyed an estate, inviting residents to return completed forms to the local supermarket, where the completed form became a £1 off discount coupon! The survey received a 38% return rate.

Your parade of shops is central to the community – get in there and spend time asking questions and listening to people.

5. Work with the funder on what comes next.

It’s important what happens to the findings once a consultation is completed. Consultation creates expectations amongst participants and disappointment and resentment when outcomes don’t turn out as anticipated.

How do you manage expectation?

Any confidence in an excellent consultation process turns to cynicism when the findings are forgotten, or the process is duplicated a week, month or year later. So, what’s the plan? It’s worth talking this through with the council department, agency or funder.

We could talk about using a local café as a base for people to find you. Or the importance of door to door, or consulting people outside of office hours and getting a feel for the estate early or late. More for next time!

Church and their Buildings

Church buildings are a challenge. Sure, buildings can be useful, but viability and costly maintenance clog up work and the agenda of church meetings. And when you’ve only a tiny congregation – the pressure builds up.

How, when the vicars vocation is about people and community, is so much time given to buildings? What is ‘church’ – a pseudo heritage organisation?

A church building is a great opportunity:

  • A presence in a neighbourhood, on the skyline and landscape.
  • A continuity, reassuring in a changing world.
  • A resource to host all kinds of activity.

On the other hand, they are a nuisance:

  • Space is often unused for most of the week.
  • Expensive to maintain.
  • Refurbishment or modernising plans can dominate forever.
  • People resources get diverted to focus on bricks and mortar.

With small congregations and affordable alternatives, why a building anyway?

As soon as a minister starts at a church they get a bunch of keys. Incumbent to the building, keeping it open is a key measure of success. For most vicars the building becomes the constant headache – the ongoing distraction.

You can see the building ‘managing’ the minister and their congregation.

What is the alternative?

In Cornwall I met a vicar set free from managing the plant. A new Trust has been set up with support from the diocese to manage a huge listed rural church building.

  • The Trust is independent of the Parochial Church Council (PCC).
  • The local vicar is not on the board of the Trust.
  • The Trust is enabling those outside the church interested in the building to oversee and develop the space.

I sat in on a meeting of the Trust and PCC as they agreed responsibility for every aspect of the building – who looks after and oversees what? Like a couple deciding who had custody, this was in a brilliant exercise in pragmatism. The PCC prioritising use of space within the building and responsibility only for those items required for a worshiping congregation. The devil is in the detail, and the detail is a lease signed in January 2016 by the PCC

It’s not a straight forward exercise for the vicar.

Happy to loose responsibility for the upkeep of the building while (outside regular use on a Sunday and occasional meetings and events) loosing control of the space can feel like too much. In Cornwall they’ve struck a good deal. The congregation retain full use for meeting Sundays and for weddings, baptisms etc, and PCC oversee their meeting area in the chancellery. The rest of the building and time during the week is overseen by the Trust.

It’s early days for the vicar, the PCC and the Trust but this new approach could make a huge difference. The congregation and vicar can get on working on interpreting ‘church’ as a group of people. The Trust focus on working with stakeholders (including the congregation) to develop the space.

The project raises important questions about a population’s relationship with their local church building.

  • What are the priorities for small congregations with limited resources?
  • What does a phrase like ‘our church’ mean to members of a worshiping congregation and the vast majority of the local population who aren’t?
  • Who is responsible for maintaining and developing a church building when its beyond the reach of the congregation and incumbent? What are the implications and possibilities for seeding responsibility to a wider circle of people beyond the congregations?

What’s clear is that while the church faces a tsunami of redundant church buildings, many buildings still present a huge opportunity. Bold solutions – like the one in Cornwall – offer learning and maybe some answers.

Staying Power

Sorry to read the Community Development Foundation (CDF) will close later in 2016. The news snuck out mid-December lost amidst a flurry of tinsel. It’s demise is a blow for the community sector.

The CDF has its roots in Harold Wilson’s  Community Development Projects (CDP) of the 60’s and 70’s. IMG_0134A government funded community programme, the CDP’s galvanised neighbourhoods, while it’s community workers went native, radically critiquing the state for allowing the collapse of industry and manufacturing. Something along the lines of “If people have their jobs taken, community work is no substitute for employment and justice!”

CDP’s became the ‘Community Projects Foundation’ and eventually the CDF – a public body, publicly funded.

The irony of a state funded organisation working to support independent grassroots community work was not lost on everyone. CDF had its critics, concerned ‘community development’ with all its potential for empowering radical grassroots change, was being commandeered and diluted by government. By the 90’s CDF operated alongside a bunch of alternative independent agencies, each active in supporting different aspects of community development and its paid and unpaid workers.

CDF’s closure follows Urban Forum and Community Development Exchange (CDX) – both supporting distinctive aspects of independent, grassroots community work. Each noted withdrawal of government funding as a factor in their demise.

Maybe in a world of community organising, social enterprise, competitive tendering and commissioning, CDF struggled to find its place. Yet CDF’s closure is a loss to the community sector.

Badly eroded from 2010, CDF had a unique connection to government and once, a seat at the table. This at least provided government with a formal mechanism to engage with and fund community development work. With its closure any trace of this is now lost with little opportunity for remaining national community organisations to fill the gap.

The context for national organisations (Locality, Community Matters etc) to nurture collaboration, assert the importance  of independent grassroots community work and lobby for funding is vanishing. The work is a huge challenge for a sector under siege, already diminished by an exit of government funding, independence eroded by the impact of new funding regimes and increased competition. And any place around the government table has gone.

Community organisation locally and nationally are overstretched and under resourced. The temptation to secure funding at any price is overwhelming – even if it means staying silent when the community you work in is being decimated by cuts, closures, welfare reform and low pay. ‘Take the money and deliver a service!’ Yet a few of these organisations buck the trend, continuing to secure funding, find new ways to operate effectively while amplifying the voices of those most marginalised.

The closure of CDF throws down the gauntlet to Locality, Community Matters and others to promote effective community development, working for social justice on the margins, and to work harder with policy makers and the state – not letting government off the hook!