In our recent work with Test Valley Council, we found it inspirational to learn about how they’ve developed relationships with local communities and embedded this at the heart of how the Council operates over the past twelve years. Other councils we’re working with (and beyond) who are embarking on a similar journey are keen to learn from practice elsewhere. So, we spoke to Test Valley’s Community Manager, Dave Growcott, to find out more about what they’ve done and what they’ve learnt in Test Valley.

In 2014 the water levels rose and submerged dozens of businesses and homes in Test Valley, a rural borough council on the edge of Southampton. Amidst the wreckage came something inspirational and moving. Volunteer organisations and community members began organising to help one another with the support of public services, first to respond to the emergency and then to rebuild.

Though it’s not something anyone would choose, the flooding and the response bolstered a new way of working, by then undertaken by the council for several years prior. The goal of the new approach was to foster a more vibrant and participatory partnership between communities and local public services.

Fast forward to 2022 and Dave Growcott, manager of the Test Valley Council Community Team, is leading on carrying this work forward. Though Dave joined the Council in 2019, several years after the floods, he views the flooding and the response as an important milestone due to the way it demonstrated the potential of the nascent new approach. “The areas around the borough where communities had [previously] come together were able to respond best to the flooding” says the 20 year veteran of local government. This provided an important “piece of evidence that this works, and a spur to build it out more”. Dave is excited how this approach can be embedded and developed even further, emphasising that “at the heart of a new approach, it’s about working with communities, not doing to them”.

Building the foundations for a new relationship with communities

In Test Valley, the work to rethink the relationship between citizens, civil society and local government was born out of a piece of work the Council undertook with the Local Government Association ten years ago. Called ‘Planning for Real’, the new approach for Test Valley was pushed forward by two determined leaders. First, “we had a political champion” Dave says, of a local ward councillor who felt frustrated by barriers to delivering for his community. Second “we had a Director who had the will and the influence” and a background in community based work. “It was good fortune both these things happened at the same time. This was the catalyst.” Dave says. The ward councillor later went on to lead the council, and the Director is now the Chief Executive, further reinforcing the focus on community participation.

Finding the resources to match this intent is often not an easy task as community engagement can be “a bit unknown, and can be seen as a bit of risk”, Dave explains. Importantly, Test Valley Council did commit the resources needed to form a Community team, and set about developing new ways of thinking about and working with communities across the Council.

Beyond consultations, towards participation

From the start, the Council has been determined to ensure its community engagement work is embedded, rather than “just the occasional community event”. To support this, the Council’s team of nine community engagement officers have a methodology for initial conversations, centring on what is important to people: “What’s a good life to you? What have you got already to progress this? What could you tap into that you haven’t already? What role, if any, is there for council and services to support this?”

Going far beyond bog standard consultations, this relationship-focused engagement often means building from simple but crucial foundations. The Community team’s work spans from hosting coffee mornings through to supporting residents of diverse ethnic backgrounds to create a Cultural Sharing Forum, for food sharing and meet-ups that foster relationship building across communities. While it’s never possible to know what these connections will lead to, starting where people are at and building trusting relationships has shown time and time again to be an important starting point. It also provides a platform for deeper engagement, for example, the citizens assemblies the Council is running to inform its new corporate plan and local regeneration.

As well as fostering day to day connection and resilience, the value of the networks and trust built has been demonstrated again and again by major events and crises. “By the time the pandemic came around, we had links across the borough with voluntary organisations and informal groups” Dave says. These relationships enabled the council to better provide direct services as well as support community-led action. For example, during the pandemic, community groups immediately mobilised themselves and then came to the council to request what they needed in order to deliver prescriptions to neighbours who were shielding — a shift in traditional power dynamics between communities and public services.

A model tested during the pandemic of a daily ‘community coordinators call’ was re-deployed for the Ukraine crisis. On a weekly then monthly basis, statutory services, food banks, informal community groups and specialist charities worked together on group calls to manage the challenges of supporting the arrival and hosting of Ukrainian refugees.

With both a powerful concept and a growing track record, the approach of embedding community engagement across all areas has secured the political backing of cross party councillors, and a close working relationship between Dave’s team and other departments in the council. The coordination of Dave’s team with the council’s Policy Team in particular has been key in establishing a community-led approach as key to how the council does business. The political and executive buy-in has ensured that a community centred approach has become “intrinsic to so much of what we do’’. In Dave’s experience, the way community participation is central to a way of working, and not a bolt-on, elicits excitement and even a bit of envy from officers in other local authorities.

The nature of the working relationship between officers and councillors is another fundamental aspect in making the approach a success. There is a culture of officer-councillor cooperation across the organisation, and the Community Engagement Officers in Dave’s team work particularly closely with elected members. Each Community Engagement Officer has a geographical area consistent with ward boundaries and works with all councillors within their ‘patch’ to engage with communities and identify and work towards local priorities.

This approach helps all councillors to understand the value of meaningful community engagement in creating thriving communities and more effective local services, as well as helping them to be more effective in their role as ward members.

Fertile ground for growing community

Despite successes, there is often scepticism both within communities and public sector organisations when it comes to working in more participatory ways. The key to overcoming scepticism, Dave says, is to find the early adopters, connect to their needs and on their terms. Then, start building incrementally so that “stories of success will create fertile ground”.

Test Valley is part of a burgeoning movement to rethink the relationship between citizen and state. So, if he was just starting out what advice would Dave appreciate? “You need genuine buy-in at the top of the organisation” Dave reiterates, and then “you have to back yourself” to deliver on that intent with the resources. From there, it’s about finding the right opportunities, building on successes, accepting there will be failures but ensuring you learn from them and looking further afield to learn from others. And then “it’s about pushing the boundaries and embedding this way of working the best you can”.

Collaborate is currently working with 40 senior managers, including the CEO and Leadership Team, in Test Valley, to help develop and embed collaborative leadership skills and behaviours. We are also working with a number of councils, including Birmingham, Merton and Watford, to help embed new approaches to community participation and engagement at the heart of their work. Please get in touch with Anna Randle ([email protected]) Dawn Plimmer ([email protected]) if you would like to find out more!