Cllr | Community Engagement – A Question of Trust

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A Question of Trust

At a time of political upheaval and mistrust in conventional politics, Eleanor Kelly, in the first in a series or regular contributions, says that good local community engagement is more important than ever.

The political landscape – national and international – is certainly not dull at the moment Many are questioning how the parties, the politicians and the pollsters can get it so wrong.

The seismic shifts caused by Brexit and the Presidential election in the USA have prompted a great deal of discussion about the perceived “disconnect” between apparent popular opinion and of those who govern. Many are questioning how the parties, the politicians and the pollsters can get it so wrong

However, as an eternal optimist I prefer to focus on the things that we get right, and in local government there is a great deal to be celebrated in community engagement by both members and officers: with its importance only increasing in these uncertain times.

Along with my optimism I carry a healthy dose of pragmatism. I am not blind to the rise of social media  with the anonymity that it can afford, and with the growth of email and other digital engagement and its often unrealistic demands for immediacy. All can lead to opposition developing very quickly on any given issue. The current broader political climate can exacerbate the situation by fostering an atmosphere of mistrust that makes it very difficult to break through with facts.

This is why good local community engagement is so important. Local councillors must be the known, trusted face of politics; they are the eyes and ears of a community and will know better than most what the real mood music is on the ground. They have a clear understanding of local concerns, challenges and fears.

In Southwark, engagement is working. The LGA peer review undertaken in Southwark last year said that “there is a great deal for the London Borough of Southwark to be proud of. There is a huge passion and pride for the place amongst everybody we met. This was both impressive and unusual in its extent.” They praised our strong connection with and commitment to local communities, our approach to addressing inequalities and our track record in engaging and involving local people. This matters as we can only deliver what we do because of the connection we have to our community.

It matters what the council is promising to do, but also how to do it. We are driven by our values, which act as a touchstone internally and externally, holding us to account. But this takes a lot of hard work and sometimes means doing things a bit differently. In 2013 I took part in Undercover Boss which was a calculated risk on our part in terms of wanting to find out what impact austerity was having on staff and customers, and also to show wider communities that people who work in their local councils, whether elected or appointed care genuinely about the services that they provide. I tell Peter John, Leader of Southwark, that the risk always felt a bit one sided given that it was me that had to endure the “make under” and appear on national television looking ten years older than usual!

Our responsibility as community leaders is to both listen and to lead. To explain why specific decisions have been made and to make sure we have listened to as many voices as possible in getting there. That’s why engagement matters and that’s why in Southwark we are committed to independent commissions, performance poetry and events, and community conversations – whether about how we spend council tax payers’ money, where new homes in our densely packed borough should be built, or how to change our high streets as shopping habits and expectations change. And why we should always keep listening, keep learning and keep leading in the interests of all.

Government should look at what is working in local councils and what lessons they can learn from our local knowledge. Maintaining community cohesion, defusing tensions and being able to work in partnership with the business and voluntary sector and with other public bodies such as the police and health are all vitally important at this historic and challenging time.

Eleanor Kelly is Chief Executive of the London Borough of Southwark Council.

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