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Why don’t public bodies co-operate more on community engagement?

Everyone agrees it makes sense for public bodies to co-ordinate their community engagement.  So why don’t they (usually)?

I managed to get our Health and Wellbeing Board to agree a protocol, last week, committing the Council, CCGs, Healthwatch and the voluntary and community sector to co-operate in their community engagement work [Protocol on community engagement between West Berkshire Council 2 CCGs, Healthwatch and EWB].

I’d like to think I achieved this because of my charisma, persuasive skills and networking ability.  But I know that wasn’t why it was agreed.  Not least because I possess none of those things.  I think actually it was because it’s an obviously sensible idea.  We’ve all got similar obligations and objectives so why not work together.  Don’t duplicate and waste scarce resources.  Don’t approach the same sections of the population at the same time on the same topics.  Don’t waste money collecting information that your partners already have.

Yet my work in other parts of the country tells me that such co-operation often doesn’t happen.  Where the partners are working together, it’s more likely to be regarded as a great innovation and success rather than routine.  And it often peters out after a few years (do please tell me if I’m wrong and it works well in your area).  So if it’s a great idea but most don’t do it; why?  The anecdotal feedback I’ve had (plus a bit of speculation) suggests it may be one or more of the following:

  • It takes an initial and continuing investment of time and energy in building up relationships and knowledge of each other’s work before you reap the benefits, and many people just don’t have the spare personal and organisational resources to invest.
  • There are risks.  It’s fine if you get to work with someone from another organisation who is competent and who you get on well with, but what if you do your bit but they don’t do theirs?  You could end up losing from the arrangement.
  • It’s all very complicated.  There may be hundreds of different engagement activities going on, so how do you find the ones on which it makes sense to co-operate?
  • Maybe there’s not so much overlap after all.  Yes, we’re all doing community engagement, but perhaps we’re all asking slightly different questions of different people.
  • It’s hard to give up sole control of something you are responsible and accountable for.
  • There may be an overall benefit of working with others, but it doesn’t necessarily accrue to you personally.  Instead of a successful event being yours, it’s shared, even if it did require fewer resources overall.
  • For co-operation to really get going, it needs a change of systems and cultures across a number of different organisations.  If you don’t get that (which is hard) you’re likely to be swimming upstream to make anything happen.
  • Partners and individuals may (legitimately or not) have divergent interests and agendas which get in the way of working together.

Despite this, I still feel it’s worth making the effort to co-operate and co-ordinate our community engagement.  But I also think we should move cautiously.  Get to know each other, work together where it makes sense to, but don’t expect too much.

So where will our little local protocol get us?  At the moment it’s just the starting point: a statement of commitment.  All the hard work is yet to be done.  Now we need to push gently forward.  Hopefully understanding better why co-operation doesn’t always work will enable us to focus on making it work where it can.

If anyone else has tried to do something similar in other areas I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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