Over the last few months we’ve been learning more about community engagement. It’s a fascinating issue that’s never been more important in Scotland and it’s an increasingly important part of our audit work. But to audit community engagement fully we need to both understand it and develop ways of assessing where it’s working well. That’s easier said than done. Lorraine Gillies, who is with us on secondment from West Lothian Council, has been helping us with this.
Looking at how public bodies engage with and empower communities has long been a feature of our audit work. Now, with the Community Empowerment Act there are new aspects for us to consider. This includes looking at how far the community asset approach is helping transform services through involving people in a different way. The community asset approach is simply a way of focusing on and harnessing individual and community ‘assets’, rather than focusing on problems or ‘deficits’.
Community engagement is also something that our partners in other scrutiny bodies are very interested in too. It has been a source of much discussion at the Strategic Scrutiny Group – a national forum (hosted by the Accounts Commission) with all scrutiny bodies in Scotland, for example, the bodies who carry out scrutiny of housing, care, prisons and health services. This group ensures that the scrutiny of public sector bodies is better targeted and scrutiny reflects any risks identified. It’s no surprise that how well organisations are empowering communities is high up on the group’s agenda – it’s an area where we know we can work together to add real value.
So, to get things started we have already held three round table discussions, helping us develop a deeper understanding of community engagement and empowerment. Key discussion included: what does it look like when it’s working well; what are the issues we need to be aware of and what are the tensions, and what are the issues we need to focus on through our scrutiny work to add real value? We’ve learned a lot through this process of listening and learning from the experts.
Andrew Magowan from Inspiring Scotland has been involved and says it’s been valuable: “Community engagement is central to our national aspirations around community planning and empowerment and for Inspiring Scotland, is often the first step in building the foundations for transformative change for individuals and communities. Therefore, the working group has provided a valuable opportunity to explore the nature of community development, it’s role and how to assess its effectiveness.”
And Lynn Molleson from COSS (Community Ownership Support Service) adds: “The community engagement round table has given us a chance to network with other agencies and colleagues involved in trying to capture meaningful change at community level. Since the Community Empowerment Act was passed in 2015 we have seen a big uptake in interest from communities in taking on assets and in interfacing with service providers.”
We’re now getting on with designing our approach and seeing what’s happening across Scotland. You might be interested in some of the big issues we’ve been considering:
- Don’t underestimate the power of learning and training, bringing together people from different sectors, such as housing and health – there is much to learn from each other.
- Do people feel engaged and listened to? Do they feel they have a central role to play in shaping the way needs are met?
- What are the signs that an organisation takes community engagement seriously? This could be the importance placed on supporting volunteering, whether engagement with the public is authentic, how honest decision making processes are, or that the organisation pays a lot of attention to whether engaging with the public is resulting in tangible differences to the way they work.
- Authenticity is vital. Are organisations honest about what they heard, what they changed as a result and critically, what they were unable to change and why? Done well it’s about working together to find a better way of meeting needs and developing local communities.
- A focus on outcomes is important but is developing capacity and capability even more vital?
Our round table experience shows that time spent listening and learning together in an open and authentic way is time well spent. Our work in this area will have an impact across a number of programmes of scrutiny activity, including how we carry out our work on best value in the public sector.
We’re looking forward to understanding more about what you are doing well and how you are overcoming the barriers to the changes that were envisaged in the Community Empowerment Act. If you would like to know more or have any examples to share then our team are happy to hear from you.
About the author
Claire Sweeney is Associate Director at Audit Scotland