Community Planning is here: Get Involved!
The Building Change Trust’s Civic Activism Programme aims to bring decision-making closer to the citizens of Northern Ireland, through the use of innovative and creative engagement methods.
The Trust’s Civic Activism Toolkit documents 29 such methods that have never or very rarely been used in Northern Ireland before. Eight awards were then made to VCSE organisations for the purposes of experimenting with one or more of these methods in relation to a named social or environmental issue.
This series of Learning Resources documents the successes and challenges of each of the eight projects and provides practical information for those who would like to adopt these methods in their own work.
This case study focuses on five engagement methods, or tools, used by Community Places to explore people’s thoughts on community planning and local issues. We hope this short guide will give you some inspiration to try some new engagement methods yourself.
Community planning has been devolved to all eleven local councils in Northern Ireland. Community planning represents a genuine opportunity for local people to get involved in shaping local places and services that matter to them. The project is extremely timely and focuses on raising awareness of localised community planning and creating opportunities for citizens to participate in the process. To do this, Community Places tested five innovative public engagement techniques.
Community planning provides a new way for councils, service providers and the community to work together to improve outcomes for people and their local area. Community Places felt that that the project could provide an important opportunity to raise awareness of the new power and to highlight the benefits of getting involved in community planning.
The project enabled local communities (of place and interest) to test a range of techniques to support their involvement in community planning. Community Places worked with community development network organisations and community planning officers to test engagement methods in three recently formed local council areas: Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council; Mid and East Antrim Borough Council; and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. The project has helped to build good working relationships and networks between all those who play a role in community planning which should hopefully continue in future community planning.
Community places chose to test tools which could be tailored to reach out to ‘lesser heard groups’ such as: young people; those in more isolated rural areas, who typically have less access to engagement opportunities; and those who tend not to take part in formal consultation processes.
Community Places tested the following engagement tools:
- Community visioning – A process of creating a ‘vision’ outlining what a community would like to look like in the future and what improvements need to be made to achieve this vision. This is done in partnership with members of the community. Community Places facilitated workshops offering participants the opportunity to find out more about community planning, contribute ideas, discuss, explore issues and identify priorities for their area. Participants worked together with people from across a range of sectors to develop achievable actions to address identified priorities. The findings of these workshops informed and fed into the Mournes District Electoral Area (DEA) level of community planning.
- Public forums – Public forums bring people together to discuss issues that are important to their local area. Community Places ran three public forums to enable people across Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to hear about community planning, find out about the process in their area and to explore community planning priorities for the area. Participants had their say on a range of thematic issues including: education, tourism, promoting health, sustainable jobs, community safety and cohesion.
- Pop-up democracy – Pop-up democracy is about going to where people are already gathered to help reduce barriers to their participation. Community Places engaged with members of the public by ‘popping up’ in local places or setting up stalls at events or in shops. They talked informally with people about the issues which mattered to them about where they lived. The element of surprise was challenging: people aren’t as familiar with this style of engagement and were sometimes cautious at first. Community Places asked people to use coloured sticky dots (‘Dot-mocracy’) to indicate if they had heard of community planning before and if they thought it was important to have opportunities to get involved in community planning in their area. The majority of people (81%) had not heard of community planning before. In this respect, they were able to reach out to a new audience and to people who had not taken part in any formal engagement processes which the Council had undertaken.
- Citizen reporting – Citizen reporting is real time reporting by people at events or on current affairs, usually through social media. Community Places used a variety of mediums, such as photos, word cards and video ‘vox pops’ (short interviews with people which conveys public opinion) which captured people’s thoughts and ideas about strengths, assets and challenges facing their local community. Images and videos were shared on social media. They found it particularly useful to use word cards; participants are invited to write down one word about their experience, they then have their photo taken with the card, and this can be shared on social media to generate interest and disseminate findings in a very visual and clear way.
- Participatory card games – Participatory card games can be used to help people discuss complex issues in a light-hearted way. Participants can often be involved in creating and designing the content of the game. The game encourages people to see different viewpoints and opinions on complex issues and stimulate debate. Community Places worked with forty school pupils to create a game focused on skills and employment. Designed and developed with the pupils, this helped them to feel that they had ownership of the process. Playing the game also helped pupils to build confidence with their peers through debate and discussion in a fun and relaxed environment.
What Worked Well
The project successfully raised awareness of the importance of getting involved in community planning so that people can help shape places and services. They reached new audiences and created opportunities to enable people to get involved and influence formal community planning processes.
The involvement of the pupils in the development and design of the participatory card game content ensured maximum ownership of the process and helped pupils to get the most out of playing the card game. Feedback suggested that the game was well received: “Participatory card game – looked like a great way of engaging people creatively”. The game is now a resource for the school and has broad application, as it can be tailored to focus on a range of themes relating to community planning and place shaping.
The visual element to citizen reporting was very effective; it was easy to share on social media and helped reach more people, creating a buzz around the community visioning events that they ran. Citizen reporting got people’s attention and with some people wanting to use the engagement tool in other processes. One piece of feedback noted: “Very interested to know more about the “Citizen Reporting” method”.
Working with local networks was a key to success. The planning and delivery of community visioning events worked best with the involvement of local community development networks and Community Planning Officers.
Other community organisations were inspired by the engagement methods explored in this project:“We will be using these tools – excellent visuals and feedback from the project”.
What Lessons Can Be Learned
Pop-up democracy: By the nature of the pop-up democracy events, they were popping-up in locations where people might not expect them to. Consequently, some people were a little apprehensive initially and thought that there may be a hidden agenda such as canvassing for votes or collecting for charity. It is clear that the idea of pop-up events is not well established here. However, in the context of a local community event such as summer festivals and community ‘May Day Fair’, people were more familiar with the idea of a pop-up stall. At pop-up events the time you have with people is limited so questions and information need to be kept clear and concise. ‘Dot-mocracy’ (as mentioned above) was used as a quick and visual way for people to actively engage at the events.
Participatory card games: It was quite challenging to secure the involvement of a secondary school for the Participatory Card Game. It was more successful to target individual schools and Heads of School, based upon the themes of the card game (Skills, Training and Employment) to secure involvement.
Public Forums: The public forum events were re-scheduled from June to August to ensure that the process aligned better with the formal community planning process in Mid and East Antrim. However, holding the events during the summer holidays may have affected levels of participation. This reflects the real-life challenges which are experienced when planning and undertaking engagement processes.
Community visioning: The community visioning process took place over a six-month period it can be challenging to keep the same core group of people involved in these types of exercises over a longer time frame. While visioning exercises by their very nature are aspirational, it is important to keep a focus on achievable actions which the people and skills in the room can deliver by working together.
Testing five different tools across the three areas was ambitious given the timeframe and scale of the project. However, Community Places thought it would have been interesting and valuable to test the same tools in each area to compare their application in different contexts. For more detailed results and impacts from the project please see the Project Website below.
All projects in the Civic Activism Programme were supported by The Democratic Society and Involve, who provided mentorship, guidance, international experience and access to a range of Learning Partners.
The Building Change Trust was established in 2008 by the Big Lottery Fund (now The National Lottery Community Fund) with a National Lottery grant of £10 million, as an investment for community capacity building and promotion of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland. This funding was both invested and spent in full by the end of 2018 when the Trust closed.
Community Places, established in 1984, is a charity and not-for-profit social enterprise specialising in planning, community planning and engagement.
For more information about the organisations and the project visit: http://www.communityplanningishere.org