Talking to the community
In ‘Talking to the community' Elin Gudnadottir discusses the importance of good communication between community groups and councillors and the opportunities it brings to both groups.
Talking to the community
I am not a big fan of generalisations but one that certainly applies to all walks of life is that successful relationships depend on effective communication. In an Urban Forum research report - Leading Lights - one of the main findings was that better communication would improve the relationship between Councillors and community representatives. What makes this interesting is that both groups are working towards the same goal; improving their local area. So it seems that they just need to start talking to each other. Why aren't they?
The answer may lie in the nature of the two groups and how they operate. Community representatives come from a sphere that is organic and fluid; groups appear and disappear - and that's how it should be. Councillors, on the other hand, are elected through democratic elections. Most of them belong to established political parties so their representation is more formalised. They sit on boards and are responsible for running the local authority. These two spheres also overlap with community representatives going forward as councillors and councillors acting on behalf of community groups.
However, community representation in local decision-making has been far more hit and miss. Recently, it has been made more formalised through representation on local strategic partnerships (LSPs), but choosing representatives from such a varied group can be difficult. That's why it is important for both the council and more formal community groups to have an effective outreach system. A well resourced and active outreach work is the foundation of effective representation- done well it gathers intelligence for representatives who then can feed different opinions to LSPs.
The Leading Lights report found that community groups perceive councillors as failing to understand the wider community they are supposed to serve, and are most commonly perceived to be older white men, toeing the party line. Community representatives on the other hand are perceived to come from a more varied background and represent a wider section of the community. Who you are and where you come from does shape the decisions that you make. But it does not mean that you cannot understand and take into account the needs of other people or groups. Whether you are an old white man or a young woman from an ethnic minority it is your ability to communicate and understand other people that determines whether you are going to be a successful community rep or Councillor.
We are often afraid of things that we don't know or understand. Community groups need to understand the role of Councillors and the democratic system they represent. Equally, Councillors need to understand the informal nature of the community sector and the constant changes that take place within it. Representative democracy is the foundation for a healthy participative society, but participation strengthens rather than weakens our political institutions. Both rely on ongoing dialogue.
The roles that these two groups play are an important meeting point of representative democracy and participatory democracy. Operating within the framework of representative democracy, Councillors are elected by citizens and therefore given a mandate to make decisions on their behalf. However, lately this way of governing has been under a lot of criticism. In the past few years turnout in local elections has dropped significantly. This weakens the democratic mandate of elected representatives. It can be argued that within democracies not voting is a way of expressing lack of interest or endorsement for any of the candidates but it might also represent a bleaker reality which is a general apathy to politics. The reason for this disinterest in politics could be because people do not see the relevance of it any more; they feel distant from political parties and the issues they prioritise. This is where community representation and participation can play an important bridging role. Community organisations and their representatives can provide an important channel for elected members to reach out to the community. As one respondent puts it: "both roles are vital and neither takes anything away from the other. It helps Councillors to understand what local people's issues and needs are and from whom they speak. In turn, Councillors can be the route into the local authority for change to happen and feedback results to local people. I see them as complementary roles." A successful relationship between Councillors and community representatives can only benefit everyone, so lets start talking.
Leading Lights - an Urban Forum research report exploring the role of elected councilors and community representatives is available on the Urban Forum website