Phillip Blond, the Director of the Think-Tank ResPublica was a keynote speaker last week at the at the Conference “Beyond the Usual Suspects – Real Influence Matters”. This was an event commissioned by the London Empowerment Partnership, where TCC reported back on research on factors affecting residents’ perceptions of influence on local decision-making in London boroughs. It also enabled representatives from London Boroughs and other organisations to discuss how to improve residents’ experience of influencing local decision-making.
Phillip had the following to say on the subject, linking the work of the conference to his own research:
‘The very reason why I think this report is so interesting and so important… is it shows you the potential that councils have to turn reactive approaches into proactive approaches. And what I want to talk about is what these proactive approaches should be: group formation.’
He then very much endorsed the core findings of the Report:
‘What I found so interesting about this piece of work is that it started to fill in the middle. It started to fill in the middle between ideas and reality. It started to show how we might get to where we need to get to from where we are. And I think what struck me most importantly was that for citizens, any engagement they have with their local council is utterly determinative of what they think of that local council, and how they engage with it. And I like the way the report said on the one hand, you often get very, very poor frontline service from councils, and then that’s separated from all the engagement procedures, from local council magazines to the high-flown rhetoric. But for most people their engagement is when they come to you, as the report says, reactively: about a problem, about a situation.’
‘Paradoxically the most important people in the Council are the ones who are often paid the least and respected the least – which is front line staff, often women. And they’re the people who are actually the agents or the potential agents of change in those communities. They’re the most important members of those communities – far more important than the Chief Executive’
‘Why? Because they’re the site at which most people make up their mind about the council. And what I liked about the report was the idea that all these people come with lots of different perspectives, lots of different ideas, and they have this… meeting point with the council that nobody did anything about. There’s never a strategy to move from someone who comes to you reactively and then say ‘well, how do I turn this person into a proactive member of a group, of a community?’ And you’ll often get calls from people who are incredibly angry, who are incredibly frustrated, and in no way keyed in. And so, many of our engagements with the public sector is an experience of endless phone calls, endless visits and not being satisfied.’
Looking forward, he supported some of the key recommendations:
‘The image I got from the report is this whole diversity of needs coming out of the council and the council only responding in one way, and a massive, massive opportunity missed…. I would integrate customer services and all the rhetoric of engagement, and I would say from every engagement you have, what the front line should do is try to become a facilitator, try to provoke and engage and get people into groups such that they can feel less alienated, more empowered and able to make a difference themselves. If you can give people quick wins, if you can start creating the conditions for them to make a difference, then everything – absolutely everything – can change.’
He also reminded the people present that too often the wide range of potential communications channels, that were available to spread positive messages and to engage, were not used. These value for money approaches may become more important in the current financial climate:
‘And again as the report points out, everybody underestimates word of mouth and personal experience. If most people’s experience of councils is negative, and I suggest it probably is, then that’s exactly where energy, focus and customer service should be integrated. The most important people then become your front line staff. And that’s been I think a fundamental structural message.’
Finally, he linked the report back to the wider themes of the Big Society:
‘[Making a success of the Big Society] requires organisations that are represented here to start to make the difference between the vision and the reality.’
His comments illustrate an important point. Before one can energise the engaged communities needed to build the Big Society he champions, one needs to ensure that local residents are engaged effectively at all times by local public bodies. And it is frontline staff that are crucial to deliver that engagement.
Presentations and audio broadcasts from the conference will soon be available on the TCC website.
Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company