Putting Community Neighbourhoods in the Driving Seat in Newham

Public Square gives us a great opportunity to bring together some of the different people working on local democracy and learn from each other. We recently sat down for a chat with Andy Paice, who’s been doing really interesting work helping empower local communities to shape plans for local area within Newham.

This blog post shares what’s been done, and what was learnt about the challenges involved in setting up a more participatory democracy. The approach used is a great example of the switch to a more participatory way of making decisions, and could provide inspiration for some of our partner councils.

A composite image of a diverse group of people engaged in discussion
Discussions at one of the neighbourhood meetings, from a Newham Council report.

The background

In 2018 Rokhsana Fiaz took over as mayor of Newham with the aim of creating a council that spent more time listening to – and working with – residents rather than doing things to them. Newham is split into eight community neighbourhoods, each with a community manager responsible for community development and social cohesion. Previously, as part of their role, these managers drew up plans for their patch. With the switch to a more participatory local democracy, it was decided that communities should be given a greater role in drawing up these plans. Andy was commissioned to work with the mayor, and the head of the council’s community neighbourhoods team to quickly implement a new approach.

How the process worked

To achieve this a series of open meetings was set up in each of the 8 neighbourhoods to learn about local priorities and make decisions about how these should be tackled. These were accompanied by smaller working groups to build on what was heard.

One aspect of moving quickly resulted in the slightly confusing label of ‘Citizens Assemblies’ being used for these open meetings.  In reality they were open for anyone in each locality to take part in (rather than selecting a random group of citizens, like Citizens Assemblies do), though lots of work was put in to make participants broadly reflected the make-up of the local community.

The video below from the council’s website give a quick introduction to the process:

Step 1) The first assembly

This assembly, in September 2018, was about setting priorities for the community neighbourhood. Participants sat in small groups around tables and started off by reflecting on what they appreciate about their area, before thinking about what improvements need making. To help with this they were presented with maps of the neighbourhoods which showed hot spots where the council was receiving most contact from residents and what concerns were being raised.

Notes were captured on laptops and the responses from the tables for each round were reflected back to participants via interactive presentations. While participants were having a break, these were clustered into themes. Participants were then able to discuss these before a final vote to choose the most important themes in which each participant was given a set number of votes to apportion freely across these priority themes.

Step 2) The working group

During the First Assembly participants were able to volunteer to take part in a neighbourhood working group. Members of the working groups were drawn from a hat during this assembly.

These groups came together a number of times between each assembly. Community managers helped facilitate these sessions and local stakeholders like the police, business groups, schools and youth workers, also took part, plus one councillor for each working group.

After the first assembly, the group was tasked with reflecting on what was heard during the assembly to identify what outcomes were important to achieve for each priority identified, and to start thinking about initiatives that could make these changes happen.

Step 3) The second assembly

This assembly, in November 2018, built on what the Working Group had done by reflecting further on desired outcomes for each priority, and contributing ideas and plans for achieving these. Participants could choose which of the themes they wanted to work on.

Step 4) The working group

After this, the Working Group came back together to work up these ideas into concrete proposals for a neighbourhood plan.

Step 5) The third assembly

At this assembly, in February/March 2019, residents could move between different stands to find out about the proposals that the working group had prepared. They then had a chance to vote for which initiatives should receive a share of about £25,000 set aside for the purpose in each neighbourhood. They chose projects from within each priority theme in turn, before having a free choice across all themes for what any remaining budget should be spent on.

A diagram showing the stages of the process used in Newham as a circle of activity.
The Neighbourhood Assemblies and Working Group process in Newham 2018/19

How did you reach a broad range of people?

Massive outreach was used for the assemblies including:

  • adverts outside tube stations, libraries, and road sides;
  • talking to people about them at Newham Show, which is attended by over forty-five thousand people;
  • and writing about them in Newham magazine.

Community Neighbourhood Managers also had a brief to recruit people who don’t normally come and did this by reaching out through networks like faith groups and going out knocking on doors.

The first assembly in each area was actually two assemblies, one run in the morning and one in the evening. This was done to make them accessible to a wider audience, and results from each were combined together to decide what the key priorities for the area should be.

It’s much harder to work with a group that reflects the makeup of the community if you don’t use sortion (where you randomly select invitees that reflect the communities make-up, and often use financial incentives to get them in the room). However the mayor was keen that these assemblies should be open to everyone in each area. In the end, the assemblies did manage to attract a broad cross-section of Newham’s very diverse community. The main exception was youth, which was under-represented, though there have also been four youth assemblies run in the borough over the past year.

To test whether the assemblies attracted those who usually take part, community managers were asked to say roughly what percentage of people in the room they recognised. Generally they recognised about a third to a half of the attendees. The numbers of participants at each assembly ranged from 40 to 120.

How did the working groups function in practice?

The idea was that working groups were servants of the assemblies. After the first assembly they had to look through what people had said on the day to identify what was most important to people.

They were small groups (about 8-12 volunteers plus stakeholders) that came together at least twice between each assembly; though in practice groups began to come together more often when they realised how much there was to work through. There was no shortage of volunteers for these groups. Each neighbourhood contained 2-3 wards and different hats were used for selecting members to make sure they didn’t all come from the same area.

These sessions were chances to get into the nitty-gritty of issues with council officers working together with local residents to think about these. Local stakeholders were also on hand, with different stakeholders invited by community neighbourhood managers, depending what issues were being looked at. As well as developing ideas for the neighbourhood plan, these conversations also surfaced other ideas for how local services could be improved – although it wasn’t always clear how well these ideas were enacted, compared to the concrete proposals that went forward into the neighbourhood plans.

Getting proposals ready for the final assembly took more work than was expected, and there was some feedback that clearer expectations could have been set for how much time working group members would have to commit, and that possibly some form of recompense for time given should be used.

Some of the groups gelled and worked well together from the start, whereas others experienced more challenges. For instance, in one group a couple of members were very introverted, whereas there was one member who was quite vocal and started off critical of the process. This made it harder to on-board this group and some of the quieter members dropped out and had to be replaced. Each group was facilitated by the community manager for that area and inevitably in some cases the process of on-boarding and group facilitation went better than others. Despite these challenges, there was positive feedback from members at the end of the progress, with people commenting on how transformational the process had been for them. In fact, the initially sceptical member mentioned above ultimately reflected on the process as positive.

How did you achieve buy-in within the council?

A key part of this kind of work is getting buy-in from people within the council. The new mayor was pushing for the council to work in a more participatory way but there were lots of people that had to be brought on board.

The community neighbourhoods team of managers and assistants received training for organising and facilitating the assemblies and working groups. Before the assemblies started there were some concerns that these open events might end up as angry pitched-forked mobs! But as the assemblies progressed they began to trust the process, seeing that this cooperative approach was not only working but was also enjoyable. It even helped them to bond as a team.

Some councillors were also sceptical of the approach, feeling that the money could be better spent elsewhere, and as a result didn’t always turn-up for assemblies or get involved in working groups. There were also those who dominated discussions with residents by saying what could and couldn’t be done, rather than giving participants more space. However apparently some were really converted by the process, saying that these were some of the best meetings they’d had with residents, and it felt like people were treated like adults  – even if others still struggled to find their role.

Councillors were given some briefing about the process, but there had been some hopes of spending longer on this at the start, including running an assembly-style event for councillors themselves to explore their hopes and fears for the new council administration.

Internal dynamics within council staff are always a big barrier to overcome when doing a new process like this. People in departments will have their own habits that need to change, and they have to become willing to do this, rather than just feeling forced. There will always be some people who are more enthusiastic than others. This is about broader organisational change and is a crucial part of building more participative organisations.

What has the impact of this work been?

A new culture of participation in the borough has begun with this first cycle of 32 neighbourhood assemblies and over 3000 attendees since September 2018. Residents have had a real chance to determine the plans for their area. The assemblies have witnessed a recognition and celebration of the fact that Newham is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the UK. They have promoted a sense of cohesion with people from different backgrounds working together harmoniously. Local feedback in the neighbourhoods has been generally very positive. There is evidence that people are feeling more connected to their local area, are becoming more active citizens, and that energy which previously went into complaining is becoming transferred into a more constructive engagement. Initially there was scepticism in some areas that this would be a tick box exercise, and residents were tentative about getting involved. But over time, as feedback has been responded to, this has diminished.

Both local residents and Council staff have also reported learning a lot about their areas, and the assets within these. There is the sense that a good start has been made on building a more partnership-based relationship between residents and the council, though this will need constant development.

What’s next for this process?

The working groups from all of the eight neighbourhoods have recently met to reflect on how well the process worked, and to begin to design a future cycle of assemblies that would take place in a year or so, once the current plan comes to the end of its life. One of the top suggestions from this meeting was greater citizen involvement in the design and facilitation of future assembly cycles. There are plans for further meetings of the working groups to monitor how well the neighbourhood plans are being implemented. To open the working groups to new participants, there was a chance for people to volunteer to join these at the final assembly, though it hasn’t yet been decided how they’ll be selected. The mayor has pledged that the next round of assemblies will have an even larger budget than the last.

What does this tell us for Public Square?

A number of the councils we are working with will be embarking on journeys similar to that of Newham. The way they’ve been able to make the switch to a way of working that puts residents in the driving seat, gives inspiration for what can be done.

Reflecting on what’s made a difference there can help make these projects successful. Some of the key takeaways for us are: how much you can achieve by targeting promotion and outreach effectively; the vital role that group dynamics and good facilitation play in practice; and the crucial challenge of getting councillors and council staff on board with a more participatory way of working.

 

If you have lessons to share about the kind of topics covered here feel free to get in touch with us on team@publicsquare.org

If you want to find out more about these assemblies you can contact Andy on andy@naturalinsightcoaching.com