Award Winner: Community Engagement – The Co-operative Way

Best community engagement/consultation sponsored by the LGA

Background report

Report available on the Lambeth website

Summary

As part of its efforts to create a ‘co-operative’ model of commissioning and delivery, Lambeth wanted to overcome the perennial challenges of community engagement – getting beyond the usual, high-profile respondents, ensuring that resultant knowledge is embedded within the council, and championing proactive community engagement as a tool to be employed across all council departments.

To achieve this, the Policy, Equalities and Performance team devised a project whereby they would train as ethnographic researchers, engaging with communities ‘on the ground’, rather than in more traditional, formal contexts. ESRO designed a phased training programme, focusing on four of the borough’s least-understood communities. The whole endeavour was a genuine partnership, with ESRO transferring skills to the Lambeth team until they felt comfortable to take the lead.

Overcoming many ethical and practical challenges, researchers from both organisations found themselves in unusual, often dangerous situations – gaining access to key community spaces, and talking candidly to members of the normally silent majority. With Lambeth’s officers owning both the data and the means of obtaining more, the project was highly influential. It led to numerous practical outcomes for the communities, and bolstered awareness of the benefits of
community engagement across the council.

Synopsis

Lambeth’s drive to become a ‘co-operative’ council prompted reflections on the challenges of community engagement. In particular, the borough’s Policy, Equalities and Performance team recognised the need to get beyond the ‘usual suspects’, and ensure that findings from community engagement processes could permeate more successfully throughout the council.

To break down these barriers, the PEP team devised a new model of community engagement, which involved up-skilling council staff to become ethnographic researchers. As ethnographers, they would be equipped to engage with communities ‘on the ground’, rather than in more artificial community forums. Moreover, they would have greater ownership of the resultant knowledge, so increasing the penetration of insight internally, and enhancing the cachet of community engagement as a way of delivering on the ‘co-operative’ promise.

To support this ambitious vision, ESRO delivered a modular training programme covering all aspects of the research process, including innovative free-find recruitment techniques. Starting as they meant to go on, the Lambeth team focused the programme on four challenging communities: Gypsies and Travellers, the Black Caribbean community, transgender residents, and a pair of existing community engagement schemes (Green Community Champions and
Community Freshview). The project engaged with each community in turn, with ESRO transferring skills to the Lambeth team until they were running projects from start to finish – all the time generating powerful new findings, many of which have already been actioned.

Gypsies and Travellers

  • Enclave of English Gypsies, tarnished by prejudice and allegations of criminality
  • Hostile relationships with council led to several abortive visits and off-site negotiations before researchers were granted access
  • Insight: many caravans actually occupied by lone-parent families in poor living conditions
  • Impact: multi-agency conference, identification of single council officer to liaise with Gypsies, £400,000 of regeneration funds allocated to Gypsy site

Black Caribbean residents

  •  Disproportionately dissatisfied with council services
  • Ethnography with range of people, from recovering addicts to elderly first generation migrants
  • Insight: local strongholds of Caribbean identity being eroded; community driven with stories of negative council experiences
  • Impact: new partnership with community organisation to co-develop solutions to issues raised; Lambeth’s communication department to include positive stories from community in publications

Transgender

  • Little known about local transgender population
  • Researchers conducted people- and place-based ethnographic research, on public transport, in council buildings and in gender-bending nightclubs
  • Insight: no coherent ‘local’ trans community; isolation of trans people heightened by barriers to using public transport and face-to-face public services
  • Impact: Lambeth hosted London-wide trans conference; partnered with local trans organisation to deliver internal ‘Trans-awareness’ training

Community engagement schemes

  • Insight: mix of confident activists, rich in social capital, and people with more modest goals, striving to unite residents
  • Issues about competition for resources
  • Impact: helping to shape co-operative council strategy; council staff being supported to develop ‘co-operative’ behaviours on basis of findings

In prompting positive actions from different council departments, the programme was a great stride forward for community engagement – demonstrating the power of council officers being able to conduct ethnographic research themselves, and energising the community engagement agenda within the wider council community.

What should LARIA members learn from your award entry?

  • Qualitative research skills can add a huge amount of value to a community engagement function; all the more so when these skills are transferred to council officers, so increasing their ownership of the findings and enabling them to train others in their turn
  • Ethnography is an effective means of providing fresh insight on a topic or problem which feels tired or familiar
  • Recruitment of participants in hard-to-reach groups is sometimes best undertaken independently, rather than via VCS organisations

 photo credit: Robin with award for 2013

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