How we built on existing practice to grow a new organisational approach to public participation and develop a framework for change.
Through both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Commonwealth Games, Birmingham City Council had explored new ways of engaging with the communities it serves, enabling a shift in the relationship between the council and citizens to one that felt more open and equal. The Chief Executive wanted to use that experience to drive a more visible and consistent approach to public participation across the organisation – putting the public at the heart of everything BCC does.
To make this ambition more than just words on a page, BCC recognised the need to change how they operate. A new directorate within the Council was created to build the partnership with the public and generate and share insight. It hosts the Birmingham City Observatory, a free and open data-sharing platform, alongside a dedicated Public Participation team to champion, enable, support and facilitate public participation in all areas of council business. Following conversations with the Director of Public Health and Director of Strategy, Equality & Partnerships, Collaborate was invited to work with stakeholders to co-design a new, more coordinated approach to public participation. Our goal was to help cement this shift towards a more trusting relationship with citizens and enable the people of Birmingham to inform, influence and affect all council decisions and activities.
What we did
We worked closely with the newly established Public Participation team to build the conditions for them to succeed. We started by identifying existing participation activity, the teams leading it and the methods in use.
The scale of Birmingham as a place, the diversity of communities who live there and the complexity of the council itself has led to inevitable disconnects and a proliferation of different ways of understanding what good participation looks like. Having interviewed over 30 stakeholders from across the council we recognised that new spaces for internal collaboration would enable people to share their learning, experience and existing good practice to create a more coordinated and effective council-wide approach to public participation.
We recruited for, set the terms of reference and established an operating rhythm for a strategically focussed steering group, and a more operational community of practice for those working directly with the public for and on behalf of the council. Both these groups have since played an active role in the development of a new framework for public participation.
We held a collective sense-making session with senior leaders to review our analysis and identify opportunities and drivers for change as a group.
We co-designed a typology of the six types of public participation in use across the council, illustrated by stories of good practice from the teams. This helped build not only a common language and understanding but also a sense of collective ownership for the approach, which participants will champion in ways that make sure it is adopted into use across the council.
Working with the Public Participation team, steering group and Community of Practice, we captured all of our learning to produce a Public Participation Vision & Approach outlining a new, strategically bold, coordinated approach to working in partnership with the public. This included clearly defined goals aligned with the Corporate Plan; a set of guiding principles that support consistency in the way public participation is approached across the council and the ‘Six types of Public Participation’ model.
We supplemented this with a Public Participation Implementation Guide advising on how the new approach can be embedded across the council.
Impact and Learning
The process we followed was as important to the effectiveness of the project as the products we created. Over the course of six months, the project surfaced and brought together experience and insight into the practice of public participation from across the council.
“Our initial interviews revealed how little awareness there was of which teams were engaging with which communities and how”, said Jenni Lloyd, project lead for Collaborate. “It was great to see how bringing people together to share and learn from each other has opened up a more collaborative way of working that will enable more consistency in how public participation is practiced, and greater collective insight into Birmingham’s many different communities and neighbourhoods”. Birmingham City Council now not only has a collaboratively produced vision and approach but also the learning infrastructure that will enable new opportunities for collaborative ways of working and increase the ability of teams to share and learn across corporate silos.
My hope was that this project would provide a single framework for public participation and involvement for Birmingham City Council and my expectations have been met well in this regard. The framework is specific enough to be useful but not so restrictive as to confine innovation. Through the process I have gained a better understanding of the tiers of participation and the skill set needed to operate effectively in this space. The approach has been pragmatic, evidence informed and enabling which has been really effective as a route to achieving sustainable change. It has been a good experience and the final products position us well for the next stepsDr Justin Varney
Director of Public Health, Birmingham City Council