The science of supporting community groups

I was in an interesting discussion last week at Think Local, Act Personal’s Community Capacity network. Representatives from several local authorities were comparing notes on their attempts to devolve decision-making power to groups of local people. Their approaches varied but some common points emerged:

  • the issue of who takes responsibility for the group was crucial, but not always resolved. Professionals were keen to avoid “taking over” but some groups struggled with agenda setting on their own. Perhaps sometimes professionals need to be less hands-off, but to intervene in ways designed to empower and facilitate, rather than to lead. These are likely to be new skill sets for many.
  • On a similar theme, leadership of groups was vital, but not necessarily something which was planned for. Some groups relied on one or two enthusiasts but had no succession planning for when they moved on. Some were based around a single issue and similarly lost direction once that had been addressed.
  • Councils also need to be intentional in the relationship they set up with groups. Are groups asked to react to council initiatives (consultation), to set the agenda (co-production) or to deliver services in a commissioning relationship. Those relationships have different effects on the power balance between group and council, but also on the skill set needed by groups and their sustainability: Leeds for instance has aimed to help its Neighbourhood Networks to diversify and to set up enterprises of their own.
  • The council can act as a convener and communications hub for groups so that they can offer each other peer support and to bring groups together with potential allies such as the business sector and local chamber of commerce.

If we are really taking co-production and community leadership seriously, simply providing a room and the tea money for a group and leaving them to get on with it won’t do. Some councils and other state bodies are using techniques like Local Area Coordination to bring community development skills into their workforces and treating their community groups and leaders as valued resources and partners, with all the support, workforce development and strategic back up that that implies.

For ideas on taking a strategic approach to community building, check out the forthcomging Leadership for empowered and healthy communities: A framework and Are We There Yet? both from Think Local, Act Personal.

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