How can councils connect with residents?

Good community engagement needs a plan


Posted By:

Chris Church

Consultant and trainer, Talk Action

This piece first appeared at The MJ

Every council climate programme faces a broad spectrum of interest from the community. At one end of this spectrum are campaign groups enthusiastically knocking on the door, seeking to influence plans and policies. But the other end is often invisible – residents that seem to have no desire to talk about climate issues.

For 20 years or more there has been talk about getting beyond the ‘usual suspects’ to deliver climate action, but in too many cases engagement is still very limited. Polls show that more than 80% of the population are worried about climate change – why do we not hear from them?

One reason is simple: we’re not listening very well. It’s easy to go out with strong messages but engagement is a two-way process. Many climate activists are better at preaching than they are at listening.

It’s also easy to suggest that some groups are ‘harder to reach’. A Ghanaian women’s group we contacted while doing climate work for one London borough told us the council saw them this way. But they had been meeting in the same room, at the same time, every fortnight for the last four years. They said: ‘How hard would it have been to reach out to us?’

Engagement can be difficult. There is a huge diversity of communities of place, of interest, and of identity. Council resources – especially staff time – are limited. How can a small climate team develop meaningful work with communities?

Let’s start with clarity, and the progression from awareness (‘climate change is real’) through alignment (‘it matters to me’), and actual engagement (‘I should do something’), to action. Each stage needs the right messages. There’s no point in pumping out awareness messages to people who know there is a problem, but who feel powerless or shut out of efforts tackle it.

A task as difficult as good community engagement needs a plan. Councils should be clear on which specific communities they are looking to engage, and the organisations that represent their interests. If you don’t know who’s there you will certainly find them hard to reach. Understand the area, the people and their existing local issues.

Who knows the area and the groups? Take the time to find, talk with and listen to community leaders (and councillors and staff) that work with those you want to engage. Who can open doors for you? Can you co-create your engagement plan? Our work on climate change with Muslim communities in one borough proved difficult, until we met an Imam whose brother was setting up a green travel organisation. We supplied information and contacts – in return we were invited to meet organisations we would never have reached on our own.

Successful engagement plans need to answer one question right from the start: ‘why should we bother to work with you?’ Consider what the outcomes of your work look like from the relevant community’s perspective – people will always ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ An ideal response to your approach would be something like: ‘That sounds interesting and relevant to me.’ So think about how your work will get that reaction.

Getting this right matters – poor approaches to engagement can put people off working with the council for years, and increase lack of trust. And this is not just about behaviour change – councils need to take tough decisions and need support, as anyone working on low traffic neighbourhoods will know very well. But we also need to develop zero carbon approaches to poverty and exclusion, and we need to do that with the active engagement of affected people.

Thirty-four years ago the UN World Commission on Environment and Development said ‘it is futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying poverty and inequality’. There’s still a long way to go on this.

There’s one more challenge. Minority and community groups may be less confident to discuss these issues than the climate action groups. When they will arrive in the same place – your climate forum or assembly – then quieter voices need to be given space to be heard. That may involve activists learning to be better listeners. Local climate action needs to commit to equality and effective participation for all. Can you offer support to help this happen? Remember, trained community climate champions could be a major asset.

The climate crisis is an issue for the rest of our lives. It’s not a short-term emergency, nor a three-year funding programme. Work in this area must be sustained, and if that is to happen it must be built on activities that residents like to do and want to do. Our solutions should be about people making their lives and surroundings better – about creating a better place to live.

Chris Church is a consultant and trainer with Talk Action, a community development and training organisation. He recently shared insights at a meeting of Ashden’s Local Authority Hub Network. Visit our hub page to discover more insights and practical tips for local authorities.

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