HEIER Lead, Dr Tracey Wond shares a very personal opinion piece about participating in her local community.
In quite a personal post for my professional workspace, I wanted to write about the lack of power I feel as an active person in my community. Let me say that again: I feel powerless. Whilst, in part it seems a personal rant, it aligns with my background in community development, the effectiveness of public services - call it ethnography if you must.
It's ironic given that I've dedicated the last 14 years to professing the role that evaluation and research has in holding policy makers to account and bringing about positive change through co-production in its various guises. I've been involved in driving research and led panels about how the UK's public services are (apparently) embracing an era of co-production, value co-creation, and co-design and yet I just don't see that in my local area - I feel unable to be involved in co-designing my community and it really saddens me.
It's a far cry from the "Big Society' and localism ideology that David Cameron asserted almost a decade ago. I recall being excited about this vision as I authored a paper on the merits of ethnography in public services at this time.
Of course, my experiences are my own and strongly based on my local area (Derbyshire) - indeed, I've worked with a range of other local authorities and public service organisations in other parts of the UK with great examples of multi-agency partnership and community engagement. One exception to my local experiences has been our local Police and Crime Commissioner who have worked well to listen and take ideas from the community and allocate funding accordingly (co-design in action!).
When I say I'm 'an active participant in my local community' - I'm a co-producer - taking outcomes you might expect an authority to be responsible for and delivering it by other means. I organise community litter-picks, I run the village hall, I ask the Community what they want and help find funding for us to do it, I'm a Trustee for the local food bank, and I've also won an award for 'Community Group of the Year'.
Still I feel powerless.
I'll demonstrate this with an example at my local primary school and with my local County Council:
The road is considered a priority route connecting several heavy manufacturing towns to highway infrastructures and, unusually, our local school sits right on this main road (I know no other school like it!). The road is fast-flowing since the school sits at the bottom of a dip allowing cars to carry speed and heavy goods vehicles make up around every 6th vehicle. The School has recently been extended twice with objections raised for road safety and the reassurances about this then not coming to fruition. There's a video at the bottom of this post that I took on the walk to school... I'd much rather walk alongside the A1!
For almost a year, the speed zone at our school (a 20 zone when the lights flash and 30 at all other times) has failed to work - the lights don't flash rendering the 20 speed limit unenforceable. At a guess, the traffic averages 40mph with numerous examples of other speeds, and vehicles using a long straight road before the school as a bit of a drag strip. The school have reported the 20 zone being out of operation, I have reported this, other parents have reported this, the local Councillor has reported this - and yet still there has been no action to resolve these broken lights and currently unenforceable speed zone.
Of course, I'm not naive to the implications of fixing this - it'll take manpower and financial cost (although a DFT circular does allow an authority to place a permanent 20 zone without any other planning so even a manual non-lit solution could be implemented without a highly bureaucratic decision-making process - gosh I've even priced the signs!). If the County Council were more forthcoming then the Road Safety Trust even have grants that might allow us to co-design and fund a more innovative solution.
It's a sad fact that the majority of locals I speak to say there is 'no point' reporting anything in the area (whether to the ward, district or County councils) because 'nothing happens'. They feel, and I'd agree with them, that they are powerless.
In exploring options to resolve our lights issue with the County Council I've been largely ignored, I've been sent a (really poor) evaluation report stating 20's don't work anyway, I've drawn maps with incidents (including a car recently mounting the pavement and brushing a childminder on her way home from school), I've had my emails asking for their complaints process ignored, and even my final resort of taking to Twitter to ask about the escalation process has gone unanswered.
So what would you do to gain power in this situation? Beyond escalating this to the Local Government Ombudsman, what options are there? What power does our community have and how can we address this? I actually have no answer. I do know that one serious contender is to move to another County for this reason alone and that others locally have and want to to do the same (we border two other counties - Staffordshire and Leicestershire). Perhaps I guess this post might make it's way to the right people?
When I use theory to understand and explain this situation I guess I'd draw on systems approaches to demonstrate that the safety of road users and particularly school-related pedestrians sits in a whole system with a number of dependencies. Road safety is dependent on the education of the pupils, care of the parents, responsible actions of drivers, the council in putting the proper mechanisms in place and police and community actors to enforce and regulate. At present this system fails. The proper action of the Council has failed and with that the system fails.
I don't know quite how to make this post sound like less of a rant but as someone who has worked and studied public governance and seen the power of positive engagement with communities I do want to share how as an active community leader I feel powerless. I certainly didn't think I'd be exploring whether citizens are powerless a decade ago with the hope of the 'Big Society' and feeling like never before that Cameron was right - we are now a 'broken Britain'. I don't believe, the solution is taking to the streets (I don't believe in protesting and see few examples where these ever end peacefully), but there does need to be a better mechanism for policy-makers and communities to work together (co-design offers a great solution if truly embedded).
I'd invite and encourage policy-makers to discuss with me, and more importantly - their communities, how we empower our communities, how we give power to our people and how we co-produce the outcomes we need.