Better Community Engagement – an unexpected benefit from Covid

The Covid pandemic has had a negative effect on many aspects of our lives.  But like many dark clouds there could just be a silver lining to be found.

As with all emergency situations, Covid caused those tasked with getting things done to find new ways of working including new tools to make possible what at first seemed to be impossible.  The need to work effectively with people without meeting in the flesh was the first imperative of the pandemic and pushed forward the use of online meetings on a variety of platforms.

Webinar or Project Management?

We've all got used to the online webinar, usually a Zoom call or, when the host is the local council more likely to be on Teams. Where those software platforms incorporated project management functionality in addition to staring at multipe colleagues simultaneously, the ability to exchange information, to work on a single documents between multiple participants whatever format they were using, to introduce deadlines and time management - so the benefit of working together without meeting in person was magnified.

Suddenly, more conservative organisations and particularly government at both national and local level were obliged to adopt these new working tools and exposed to new potentials that had been in common use in the tech field and in more successful businesses for some years..

The Dilemma for Local Government

For more than a decade, local government in the UK has had less and less money available to deliver local services.  

As a consequence local government has been obliged to withdraw from providing many non-statutory services that the community had come to expect.   These services range from pressing needs of vulnerable members of the community to discretionary activities by local groups who just need a bit of help from their council..  

To meet this continued need local government has frequently turned to the voluntary sector to fill this gap.  But getting the unpaid and unpredictable volunteer sector to work with the inflexible, legacy driven local government systems is hard.

  How to help them work better together?

The infinitely flexible sea of volunteers versus the perpetually immovable landmass of council bureaucracy

Then along came Covid - and everyone was Zooming and Skyping and local government in particular was forced into extensive use of Teams.  Generally, it had to be Teams because local councils, like most large businesses, are usually locked into the Microsoft fold with employees accustomed to working with legacy Office software - so use of Microsoft Teams was a choice usually with only one option.

And suddenly there was common ground between the local authority and the volunteer sector where the council could, if it chose to, provide access to relevant sections of Teams where both of them had the same facilities and the same capability.  A place where they could work together. 

The question is: would they be brave enough to occupy that unfamiliar, common space?

The good thing was that local authorities/councils come with established standards and processes so it was easy to produce working protocols of who can do what.  Unfortunately , many of them based on legacy systems originating in the Victorian era - and a lot of internal culture unfamiliar to the new volunteer arrivals.  

So will councils be prepared to grasp the advantages made possible by the new environment?

The advantage to councils of working with volunteer groups is that volunteers provide free labour - usually the most expensive element of any project.  While the council usually owns the expensive capital assets whether property or equipment.  And when we talk about free labour we're not just referring to manual labour.  There's lots of volunteers out there with professional skills, on occasion exceeding the capability of the the council officers they are working with.  More importantly, the council has the knowledge and the expertise on how things are done, particularly how to work around the many obstacles that will probably arise - often from their own bureaucracy.

Local Councils should be Facilitators not Obstacles

So the local councils should be facilitators that make it easier for volunteers to contribute.  Volunteers provide their time but not usually in normal working hours.  The council needs to make it possible for volunteers to contribute at a time of their choosing - which is exactly what online platforms do. 

Local government will inevitably be concerned about security and confidentiality.  So the suggestion is not that every Tom, Dick and Jenny are given access but those members of constituted community groups with legitimate reasons to work with council officers to achieve agreed objectives.   

In particular, there needs to be an understanding by councils that making information available in a password protected environment is infinitely more secure that scattering multiple copies of documents across the internet as email attachments. 

Dramatic Improvement in Consultation

One immediate and dramatic improvement that could take place would be in consultation and community engagement.  Too often, local councils are still designing solutions to local problems in the back of the planning office and only after many months of hard work do they ask the community for their opinion.

At this point the community replies that the proposal is nothing like what they want and the council has either wasted its time and money or will be forced to make cosmetic modifications then push the plan through because they are up against some deadline. 

More Transparency Leading to Better Results

Project management tools are designed to make it easier and more effective for multiple team members to work together to achieve a single objective.  Some local government organisations are no doubt using them effectively within their organisations.  

It requires only a small step to extend use to outside users in a controlled environment to achieve dramatic improvements in community engagement together with faster, more effective delivery of agreed objectives.

But do our local councils have what it takes to take that step?

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