Richard James FRSA has been using the Intensive Engagement process to engage local people in issues around community safety, revealing the hidden voices, assets and networks in local communities. He sets out his ambitions and some new challenges for the future.
A little over 10 years ago a police commander (the author) with a significant policing problem had a chance encounter with a senior college lecturer (Tim Curtis FRSA) who had a potential solution. That problem was a massive reduction in operational budget, an increasing crime profile, and a direction to reduce resources in neighbourhood policing. The solution was to take an honest look at what was currently being called community engagement and swiftly recognise the reality of the situation.
In the days and weeks that followed we spent long hours discussing how to deliver local policing in an increasingly complex environment; our challenge was that whatever we came up with needed to help deliver ‘more with less.’ A familiar mantra then and now, at that time it was driven by the introduction of austerity measures. Sure enough, our model began to emerge building on my experience in policing and Tim’s expertise in community development, community engagement and co-production.
What followed was a series of pilots, research, training and development that extended across the police force, into a range of locations and involved a growing number of stakeholders. Intensive Engagement was born.
In essence, Intensive Engagement is about police and authorities working locally within communities to recognise and then empower the local ‘assets’ that exist there to tackle some complex and challenging issues. These are ‘wicked’ and complex issues that have existed for many years and result in crime, fear, feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. Our response requires an agreement of what to tackle, and a problem-solving approach to addressing issues together. Agreements struck between stakeholders across the boardroom are embedded into the development of solutions built by local communities and rapidly delivered in the streets, parks, alleys and estates. Residents are transformed into active participants rather than passive recipients of services.
Ten years on and a lot has been learned and there is certainly plenty more to do. As I outlined in a previous RSA blog, the Intensive Engagement approach has synthesized research and in an eight-step framework delivers an approach that can be applied in multiple community settings. Here, the aim is to explore how solutions that are developed on the pavement, in the pubs, in the school halls and local parks lie at the heart of making change real for communities. What difference can such changes really make, and what challenges lie in wait?
We are often asked what change we are trying to make. Well, that depends. Intensive Engagement is about looking at communities from many perspectives, trying to develop a shared understanding of the uniqueness of each place that is recognisable to residents and authorities alike. Inviting people to envision what the place could be like. This means exploring what really works, what is successful alongside the familiar reviews and surveys that extoll what is broken. It requires a focus on listening to people, testing long-standing assumptions, probing data and analysing this alongside local voices and narratives.
Time spent wandering around the community meeting people is never time wasted. The results of this approach reveal hopes, fears and ambitions for communities from many sources. This includes voices that often go unheard, new sources of support and networks that are invisible to more remote authorities, and community capabilities that remain un-tapped.
Such community assets offer a way forward for authorities to realise their ambitions; many describe harnessing these assets as a way to increase ‘community resilience,’ ‘social capital’ and ‘social value’. In fact this strategic aim has been written large in a plethora of policy, reminding leaders that engaged communities reduce demand, are safer, can be healthier, will be less needy and live longer. A community engaged in this fashion can provide valuable and early insights to guide decision-making and can highlight indicators that suggest emerging unrest or resentment.
Intensive Engagement is now being successfully applied to tackle a variety of community safety issues. It has been applied to understand underlying factors behind organised crime groups, to tackle concerns over radicalisation, and to unite communities to support young people and most vulnerable communities.
The opportunities to engage communities in designing and delivering solutions in which they participate is vast. Strategic leaders and planners look for help in dealing with ‘anticipated tomorrows,’ often looking for new ways to engage people and to create opportunities for public and community deliberation that can be agile, flexible and dynamic in developing and delivering the right solutions to tackle the unique challenges of each place.
This is a bottom-up approach and some of the techniques we use – rich picturing, for example – serve to project the voices of hardest to hear into boardroom and beyond. There are however some common challenges that can dampen this energy and enthusiasm:
- It is too simple. In a world that can be so impressed by eye-catching graphics, acronyms and complicated terminology, community engagement approaches may appear simply, ‘old-school’ and dated. Door-to-door conversations, small group meetings at football clubs, conversations at Friday prayers somehow can seem ‘warm and cosy’ in a world of quadratic risk assessments, CHIS’s and collapsing time-frames. Community engagement has an image issue and can still be seen as ‘nice to do’ rather than ‘need to do.’
- We already engage effectively. Surveys pumped out via the internet and social media have become a default version of community engagement. This medium does have its place but in terms of ‘penetration’ some of the responses we have encountered have not got beyond the first layer. This is problematic for so many reasons; is it any wonder protest is increasing as communities seek to cut-through the barriers to effective dialogue?
- Community engagement is tricky to measure. This is true and it absolutely is. How do you measure the ‘cohesion’ of a community short of a thesis level of research? How do you show what harms were reduced and demand was prevented? We have found that demonstrations of active participation in local planning and activities, responses to communities to get involved and ‘sign-up’ of stakeholders can be helpful. In an operationally challenging environment the maxim of ‘what gets measured gets done’ can apply. Measurements of community cohesion are seldom so easy to establish or portray in this manner. Making a case for resource based on what may be seen as ‘intangible’ impact (at least in the short-term) is difficult.
- Technology to the rescue? For some reason the advances in technology, the ability to map, collate and share data has generally taken a wide detour around community engagement. In very recent years we have worked with partners who prefer to record information on flip-charts and notebooks rather than explore how technology can provide a step-change in identifying, bridging and bonding the people and networks of local communities. This can occur in authorities who have IT systems that are designed for this very purpose and lie unused. Asset mapping technology, language and interpreting capabilities and methods to capture the images, words and emotions of people in each community offer appealing ‘next steps.’
- Training. In recent years the pressing nature of demand in the public sector has meant that training, knowledge and ‘know-how’ in community engagement skills and techniques has suffered. We have seldom found effective processes in place to pass on the tacit knowledge and ‘know-how’ of previous times of substantial investment in community engagement. Joint training of police and local authorities together is rare; to include community members in such training even more unusual.
Potential new areas of application
The volunteer response to Covid-19 has demonstrated the massive potential that exists when individuals share a motivation to act; the next stage of our journey needs to build on this. There is a huge potential to recognise and invest in the community capability that has been demonstrated in the last 12 months. The challenge will be to persuade policy leads to re-think how this stated objective is prioritised and consider how to rapidly harness what is clearly available. There are as many questions as answers here and that is also what makes the next steps most exciting.
We are currently focused on how an Intensive Engagement approach may provide solutions to overlapping areas, particularly in areas of public policy where service delivery challenges are becoming critical. For example, the last year, even the last few weeks, have seen particular challenges around policing, civil unrest and the issues of legitimacy this raises for the police service and wider local authorities. These issues have been at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, which highlights both the discrimination in the criminal justice system and also the deep inequalities within our society, underlined by the impact of Covid-19 on different communities.
These are the challenges that face leaders in policing, local authorities and the voluntary sector. Recognition that they are occupying the same space, same challenges and same opportunities is a vital and important first step but this alone will not cause changes to how such ‘wicked issues’ are tackled. New relationships between public authorities, and those who commission and direct services into communities is essential.
As those who are funded by the public purse are recognising, the solutions to many contemporary social problems do not lie in the hands of single organisations. The ability to develop really effective strategic and tactical interventions is key. Whether we are focused on community safety, criminal justice, health, education or social care, public policy challenges do not sit in neatly defined silos that are created in far-away institutions of governance.
Good local leaders recognise the uniqueness of places' calls for solutions designed for that context. The best way to do this is to give voice to the community in a tangible way. Some of the feedback is blunt and can be challenging; this is what happens when communities feel they have no voice and no stake or share in the solutions they are offered. The news is filled with many angry, resolute, determined and sincere voices on may challenging issues. The common expression ‘you are not listening to us’ is repeated. History has shown us how important it is to act on this plea. Local policing commanders, leaders of authorities, police and crime commissioners, the voluntary sector, directors of health, probation and education must be engaged in new relationships. At all levels they need to create a new sense of public leadership based on a far richer and consistent relationship with citizens.
The next step?
As we look forward to a post-Covid-19 world, these issues will not simply disappear but are likely to become more profound as the economic and other impacts of the pandemic continue to reveal themselves. Our aim is to continue to evolve the Intensive Engagement approach to help respond to some of these challenges. For example, going beyond community safety to look deeper into the issue of rehabilitation and its dependency not just on the criminal justice system but on the wider community, be this families, employers, mentors or the voluntary sector.
Alongside this our aim is to develop a stronger response to some of the challenges outlined above. Having talked about the need to engage citizens in policy design and practice delivery for decades, how can we make the required step-change to bring this to the heart of new public leadership approaches? Can we reframe purpose around collaborative approaches and shared aims, working with partners and communities in a more consistent way, creating a shared understanding of challenges and constraints based on richer pictures of context?
How can these kinds of approaches move from being occasional or even regular to forming part of the planning processes and strategic delivery of public services, continuously, exploring new collaborations and enrolling community support? And how can we retain the value of the pavement, the face-to-face and the human contact, while utilising what technology has to offer and sharing data safely? Most importantly, how can we encourage a wider set of institutions and authorities to see this kind of engagement in a new light; not something that is ‘nice to have’ but an approach that brings them closer to their people and delivers positive lasting change?
In taking this next step we will be asking for the input of subject matter experts, including RSA Fellows. What would be the role and impact of a truly engaged and ‘activated’ community in each of these important policy areas? What does the evidence suggest? Who would be the key participants and what would they do? What is the new public leadership role? We will be asking the same questions of local communities who are living with the many contributory components each and every day. Systematically bringing together such expertise to combine with local insights and assets and developing some ‘pavement-up’ solutions may be one of the most important functions of public authorities in the years to come.
Richard is the managing director of Intensive Engagement Limited with responsibility for organisational development with our clients. He spent 30 years working in several police forces and is a highly experienced police leader. He has led significant force-wide change programmes and commanded events of national significance.
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