Councils need to stop trying to control everything and respect the community sector’s independence
Civil Society Governance, By Richard Bridge
Richard Bridge examines the relationships between local authorities and community groups.
Community Matters’ vision is for active and sustainable communities in which everyone is valued and can play their full part. Councils on their own cannot create such vibrant neighbourhoods, but nor can community groups on their own either. If we really want to improve and change for the better the communities in which we live, both sides need to pay more attention to building mutually respectful, trusting, and supportive relationships. It can be done; it is being done up and down the country every day; but not enough yet.
Whether it is under the rubric of the ‘Cooperative’, the ‘Enabling’, or the ‘Commissioning’ Council (to name but a few of the tags), local government is having to re-imagine itself, challenging its own old and received notions of what it should do and what it should not do. At its best this should aim to completely overhaul the ethos, structures, and working mentality of council officers and members alike, leading to the shedding of the traditional (and destructive) ‘gatekeeper’ mentality and its essential replacement with one of ‘facilitator’.
But before councils can complete this ten year revolution (and we are only at about year three or four in that turnaround), both sides still need to get right some fundamentals about how they treat each other.
Lessons for Local Authorities
1. Treat the community sector as you would expect to be treated (‘All I’m askin’ is for a little respect’). As Aretha sang, most of us need ‘just a little bit’ of respect from the other party if a relationship is to work. Too often the day-to-day practice of councils in dealing with the community sector undercuts and belies their rhetoric and ambitions. Such discrepancies between what councils say and what they do are noticed and remembered by communities and community groups.
2. Stop trying to control everything and respect the community sector’s independence (If you transfer responsibility you transfer power). Too often councils try to transfer the former but keep the latter. Over the past year we have reviewed or provided advice on over 80 leases issued by councils. Time and again we find the same attempts by councils to use these documents to control the day-to-day operation of the independent community group.
In truth a lot of this kind of behaviour by councils is rooted in fear, especially fear of risk. Too many of their policies and procedures and processes are rooted in and formed by risk aversion, and too many really positive ideas and ambitions coming up from the community are scotched at birth because of it.
3. Value local differences and accept ‘postcode choice’ (Variety is the spice of life). Different neighbourhoods have different assets (people, buildings, finances, histories, community groups) and different challenges. If councils wish to achieve better and more efficient outcomes for the communities they serve, they need to appreciate and value these differences and be prepared to work in different ways with different areas. Uniformity does not equal fairness, and insisting on a one size fits all approach that doesn’t listen to the specificity of a given community’s energy and passion will only dissipate that passion and energy to the loss of all.
Lessons for Community Groups
It would of course be unfair to concentrate only on what councils need to do improve matters. The community sector too has old habits and bad practices which they need to move on from if they are to help realise better, more productive relationships with their local council.
1. Stand up for your own independence (You don’t have to say yes). The community sector’s independence is one of its greatest assets, for itself, for the communities it serves, and indeed for the council. It will not help either party if in the rush to find funding community groups are seen to become creatures of the council. A respectful and productive relationship must include the ability of either party to walk away or dissent.
2. Don’t be trapped by the past (Let bygones be bygones). It can be very hard for both councils and community groups to move beyond past experience and previous mutual history. Yet if we cannot do this, and recognise that both sides are trying to (in most case) really change, then it is difficult to see us ever getting to a better place.
3. Show more pro-active leadership (Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas). Never have and never will. The ‘gatekeeper’ mentality is deeply entrenched in the corporate soul of councils and truly infusing a new ‘facilitator’ mentality instead will need strong community activists, equally committed to this long-term change, who are prepared to ‘pull’ power from their council. We get the councils we are prepared to settle for; if we want our councils to change we need to commit to helping that change happen.