Citizen engagement: Grasping the potential, learning the lessons

Press release

Peterborough’s cadre of city leaders have become more enterprising, collaborative, and focused on problem solving thanks to the experimental RSA project, Citizen Power Peterborough (CPP).

The radical partnership between the RSA, Peterborough City Council and Arts Council England was formed to help local communities in Peterborough become more civically active, more resilient, and better able to solve their problems such as drug dependence or anti-social behaviour.

In an honest assessment of the project’s successes and failures, the RSA found that CPP had provided many local people with a sense of pride in the city and helped them feel like they could make a difference to their local communities.

The project resulted in some strong successes, in particular the Innovation Forum, which continues to foster a new city-wide leadership ethos, and inspire innovative working practices.

The report into the lessons learnt from the project, however, also highlights how CPP faced several recurrent and intertwined challenges. Developing the right mechanisms to connect the demand and supply of citizen power to meet shared civic goals was arguably the hardest element of change, the report found.

Ensuring public officials were also given the incentives, space, expectations and support to be creative, responsive and entrepreneurial was also difficult to achieve.

“With the big society seemingly erased from history, there is a danger that we might give up on citizen engagement. The lesson that we learnt from Peterborough is that in the face of deep cuts to local government budgets along with rising demands associated with an ageing population, the need to identify and tap into citizen power remains as strong as ever. But it’s also difficult to achieve.”

“It is to the credit of Peterborough City Council that they opened themselves up to such an experimental and emergent approach to generating citizen power, particularly at a time when other local authorities, facing similar challenges and pressures, were choosing to hunker down and wait for the bad weather to pass.”

RSA Director of Research, Steve Broome said:

“The kinds of concerns and priorities that led Peterborough to establish CPP are now much more widely manifest in local government and other public agencies. As local public sector austerity bites, there has been a growing acceptance that strategies must seek to build capacity and resilience amongst citizens and communities.”

“For cash strapped local authorities the question remains whether the support for citizen power translates sufficiently into changes in attitudes, behaviours and outcomes that justify investment in that support. I believe that CPP provides supportive material for the affirmative case – but others may feel such outcomes can be better achieved in other ways.”

The City Council’s £250k investment into CPP pulled in a further £1m in investment from the RSA, Arts Council England, the Tudor Trust, and the Arts and Humanities Research Board. Over the lifespan of the project the RSA engaged with over 1500 local people and hundreds of businesses, charities, schools and civic organisations.

The project’s Peterborough Curriculum, introduced to five schools, resulted in increased levels of literacy and high levels of student engagement with their local area. The Drug Recovery project left a strong legacy, with service users now involved in the development of treatment programmes and improved local services. CPP also resulted in increased local arts activity with pop up galleries, the formation of Creative Peterborough and a burgeoning of arts projects situated within local communities.

Other strands of CPP such as the Civic Commons and Changemaker projects were innovative approaches but found it hard to sustain their effectiveness in Peterborough. For local authorities and civic organisations introducing similar projects around citizen power, the RSA has the following advice:

  • People are willing: Hundreds of people in Peterborough had the skills, commitment and potential connections to make important contributions to civic capacity. Beyond them a much larger group were willing to engage if the right opportunities, incentives and support were in play.
  • Be in it for the long haul: Citizen Engagement does not come for free, nor is it realistic to believe that once initial momentum has been built that engagement will sustain without further support.
  • Monitor progress: It is easy to put too much emphasis on the numbers of people engaged and too little on what they actually achieve. The messy, complex nature of citizen mobilization makes it even more important to have robust ways of managing projects and evaluating their progress.
  • Understand your area: Assess and map what’s already happing in your city and find out what can be adapted and built-upon rather than being reinvented. Understanding where there is enthusiasm for a citizen power approach. Ally your approach with a deep and nuanced understanding of the specificities of each place and its people.

The report concluded that although the impact and strength CPP varied from strand to strand, overall it was a successful intervention. While the RSA, Peterborough City Council and Arts Council England may not have achieved all their aims, by combining efforts and investment, more was achieved together than any could have managed alone.


Notes to editors

  1. For more information contact RSA Head of Media Luke Robinson on 020 7451 6893 or 07799 737 970 or [email protected]

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