Encouraging active citizenship: the Big Local experience

Questions about how we can best encourage active citizenship, and about what it takes to build or rebuild a stronger sense of community in a local area, continue to capture people’s imagination. We see this reflected in the popular narrative of ‘loss of community’, that tells us “things just ain’t like they used to be when we all used to look out for each other, when you knew your neighbours”; we see it on the policy stage in the continued commitment to localism; and, of course, with an election looming, concern about perceived citizen apathy and disillusionment with the political system also rises up the agenda.
We recently completed an early evaluation of a programme that, in its own way, is trying to grapple with some of these thorny issues. The Big Lottery’s Big Local programme, managed by Local Trust, sees active citizenship as lying at the heart of improving communities, of making communities feel like better places to live. The programme is making a long-term investment in empowering residents from 150 areas to get actively involved in the life of their community, encouraging them to come together, to identify what they think will improve their area, and then to invest £1 million over the next decade to bring about the changes that matter to them.

The Big Local story so far

Our evaluation found that:

  • residents are experiencing genuine, engaging consultation and are taking up on opportunities to get involved in their community, including by joining resident-led partnerships to steer local activities
  • the programme is acting as a catalyst for connecting people up and getting them to work together on local priorities even where there was no prior history of their doing so
  • those who get involved are growing in confidence and in the belief that working together they can make a difference – and we found in many areas they are already making a difference.

Progress in areas has varied and not everything has been plain sailing so far, but the programme has made a promising start with some interesting learning about encouraging more active citizenship.

What is helping people get involved?

The allocation of a funding pot has brought people together and acted as a catalyst for some activity, but in fact we found the money to be only a very small part of what has really galvanised people into getting involved. The programme’s early success is better explained by the way Big Local is putting into practice a set of principles based on an understanding of the successes (and the failures) of previous community programmes. These include:

1. Make a long-term commitment

The programme recognises that genuine resident control takes time to establish and that short-term thinking can hinder meaningful engagement, stifle creativity, and negatively affect the quality and impact of interventions.

2. Be proactive to ensure genuine resident control

Big Local insists decision-making partnerships include a majority of local residents, and they must demonstrate accountability to the wider community. Beyond this, however, the programme is light on bureaucracy, asks for minimal reporting, and communicates simply and accessibly.

3. Offer support in a ‘light touch’ way

Support given to areas is ‘light touch’ and delivered with a strong enabling ethos. Areas have their own designated Big Local rep, who has a clear remit around empowering residents and there is minimal central ‘interference’.

4. Allow the pace to be set locally

There is only one deadline set at a national level (to submit a plan by 2016 so that the programme has ten years to address the priorities identified). The programme has avoided year-on-year scheduling, allowing areas to plan and report to timescales that really make sense for them.

5. Focus on assets, not deficits

Local partnerships are actively encouraged not only to look at what’s needed in their area but also to spend time identifying positives they can build on. This includes not just physical assets, services and resources, but also the ideas, skills and knowledge of local people.

6. Value learning alongside success

The programme is willing to take risks, accepts that not everything will work, and values learning. Residents are supported to look outside their community for ideas and inspiration via learning events, exchange visits, a website rich in case studies and local stories, and reps who share information across areas.
The actions of local partnerships have also been important. We found the areas most successful in getting people actively involved have tried to:

7. Be inclusive and make it easy

Where it’s working well, areas have recognised that everyone has something to offer and have tried to develop lots of different ways for people to get involved, including bite-size and one-off opportunities as well as more ongoing or formal, structured ones.

8. Focus on what people care about

A key part of the appeal of getting involved with Big Local is that it is clearly focused on what local people have said they care about. There’s an extent to which people are creating their own volunteering opportunities rather than fitting in to someone else’s ideas of what’s needed, and the programme is thereby tapping into people’s interests and passions.

9. Make it fun!

We found great creativity and variety in the ways people have been consulted and involved in Big Local. Partnerships trying to make involvement fun, sociable and enjoyable feel this is paying dividends in both getting and keeping people involved.

10. Share and celebrate successes

Getting more people involved remains a challenge for what are sometimes relatively small core groups of active residents. However, focusing on quick, visible wins where working together has made a difference, and then publicising these wins widely, has helped encourage others to believe it is worth getting involved, that they too can make a difference.

What does the future hold?

We will follow Big Local’s development with considerable interest, partly because some of the active local residents we met during our evaluation were genuinely inspiring, but also because the programme has the potential to generate valuable learning about what it takes to encourage and support active citizenship; about the value in giving residents control; and about what’s different in a community where residents are making decisions and feeling they can make a difference. These questions will take time to answer, but certainly those most involved believe that their approach will lead to lasting, meaningful change and stronger communities. They credit this to the fact that Big Local is taking its time; it is focused on what is needed; as it is led by residents there will more ownership and respect for what is being done; and it is based on the power of people working together on shared goals. In the words of one local resident:

Collaboration is at the heart of (this) …. We believe the investment we have made in involving everyone will pay us dividends in the long run. The key driver is the old saying about if you want to go quickly, go alone: but if you want to go far you should go together.

For more information

This is one of a series of blogs about our work with Local Trust. You can read more here:

Ten messages from our evaluation for local areas

Tips for overcoming challenges

Reflections on measuring success

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