The Connected Society
The Connected Society
A policy toolkit for local engagement in the public realm
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the context of a clear national mandate for levelling up, public organisations and councils across the political spectrum are waking up to the idea that there is a great deal more they can do in partnership with residents and communities. The Connected Society is a policy toolkit, designed to provide actions and policy options that councils can take to enhance engagement, based on lessons learned from Kensington and Chelsea Council, who aim to make meaningful public engagement their modus operandi. If enabled and given the wherewithal, citizens can become informal local policymakers, deciding on, and taking control of their own lives in relation to the public domain – putting their unique local expertise to great use.
The policy options and actions presented in the toolkit are broken up into three categories: understanding, internalising and practicing public engagement.
When approaching consultation and engagement at the local level, with honest intentions of transcending tokenism and moving towards toward genuine participation, it is important to understand the nature of public engagement. There are three distinct typologies to engagements at the local level:
- Reactive: engaging in response to complaints or external pressures. Reactive interactions are inevitable, and it is the nature of how they are responded to that is key to optimising all interactions to be more rewarding.
- Directive: engaging residents with pre or semi-determined outcomes. The parameters of pre- or semi-determined outcomes should be open to public scrutiny and debate, particularly on matters that directly affect certain residents.
- Proactive: strategic engagements to pre-empt local issues and develop better policy. Despite the inevitable co-habitation of all three typologies, embedded proactivity is the ideal to be striven towards – as this is most conducive to having citizens and communities become active participants in local politics.
Comprehensive improvements to the public realm and local centres are a critical part of placemaking policy in the current context. These improvements should be directed by engagement activity that is not afraid to strike an emotional connection between a local authority and residents on more complex, difficult matters.
Local authorities must internalise public engagement and its teachings to ensure that the views and insights gained from engagements are well-reflected in a council’s priorities and day-to-day functionality. Making commitments and having them publicly available is arguably the first step required for any engagement strategy; a scaffolding that can be pointed towards when intentions will inevitably be questioned. Commitments should be in a similar vein to the following;
- a relational approach to governance;
- strong networking and communication systems;
- dedication to building capacity;
- a willingness to cede some power and control, and
- an organisational culture that is engaged and facilitative.
Embedding a relational approach when internalising engagements allows for local priorities to be teased out. These priorities are also likely to be of higher quality and more amenable to the wider local population – as they are result of patterns of engagement and joint adaptation between a local authority and those engaged.
The policy and practice of engagements is arguably where a local authority is most immediately present in its residents’ lives. Understanding who participates, modes of participation, trust and relationships, and communication are essential to improving the practice of engagements and subsequent policy that arises out of each process. Allowing people to witness engagement happen in practice is helpful, which necessitates as many direct engagements as possible taking place in well-established local centres and hubs of social activity across the borough. Without good, well-managed channels of communication, there is a risk that linkages will not be made between engagements and results and residents may begin to become disillusioned with the process due to feeling out of the loop.
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