Wednesday, 09 July 2008

Community engagement 'may be delusory' I've had a couple of revealing discussions about community engagement this week, with one local authority practitioner commenting: It's a very complex area, it may be delusory as a notion. It evolves of itself... It's about being alive to possibilities. He was reacting against the 'project approach' of funding specifically for community engagement: 'We want you to do this, we want you to do that.' It's not helpful. In some sense, the 'project' is the evaluation. The previous day, I'd been asked to give my views on improving people's perceptions of police performance. I chose to highlight the contrast between the development of measures that are as objective as we can make them, and the randomness and fluidity of individual perceptions. The mistake we continue to make, I suspect, is to take the robust methodology of objective measures and try to apply it in a kind of consumer-satisfaction approach to service delivery. When afterwards I was told how the police collect such material - an independent board member accompanied by an officer door-knocking with questionnaire proformas, and structured 'consultation days' - I admit my heart sank. I've banged on often enough about the need to be stimulating conversations with residents and service users on their terms, in their context, at their pace. The issue seems to be how we capture the content of the conversations: but increasingly I'm wondering if that isn't a minor or even a non-issue. My former boss at CDF, Alison West, used to say, sometimes to very august audiences, that consultation without engagement is crap. What she meant was that if you find yourself consulting people with whom you're not already in conversation, you risk failure. If you're having the right kind of conversations on an ongoing basis with people, it's then straightforward to ask their views, for instance, 'Would you rather have locked gates on your park?' or 'What conditions should be imposed on the renting of lockup garages on this estate?' It's taking so long for this cultural change to come about because of the embedded resilience of performance management culture, which requires practitioners to track everything they do and systematise it all. I interviewed a practitioner last week who said he understood community engagement when he realised he didn't need to feel he'd failed because a box wasn't ticked. Not being rigid about how you achieve something, so long as the principles of involvement are demonstrated in what we do. Somewhat generously, he attributed much of this to a throw-away remark I'd made in a meeting, when I'd said that if you just run formal meetings, you'll get people who are comfortable attending formal meetings, and the rest you won't see. Which is another useful lesson - turning up at meetings and tossing-in remarks sometimes makes a significant difference, which may or may not subsequently be revealed.

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