The latest research has revealed how residents involved in Big Local are navigating a range of ‘balancing acts’ to achieve the change they want to see.
By Mandy Wilson is part of the Our Bigger Story research team
In stark contrast to many previous place based programmes, where agencies sought to engage the community in neighbourhood-level change, Big Local starts with residents. It is residents who determine what should change, and how they would like agencies to engage with them. As such Big Local has been described as working from the ‘inside out’. Residents work at a pace that suits them, negotiating a series of often complex balancing acts to manage competing demands.
In carrying out the multimedia evaluation of Big Local, we’ve discovered more about these dynamics and how residents are navigating them. In this blog, I will share some examples which provide new insights into resident-led development.
Balancing community wants and community needs
We found that Big Local partnerships valued having a flexible timeframe and resources to profile their communities, agree a vision for action and plan accordingly. However, the process raised a number of questions in the transition between visioning and delivery:
Are the views expressed by those consulted reflective of actual needs, or only of what people thought others needed?
How do Big Local areas respond to the needs of those ‘quiet voices’ who could be ‘the least heard’ in the planning and delivery process?
To what extent are they addressing the underlying problems or addressing ‘surface’ issues?
We also found that whilst residents may agree on ‘the problem’ they may be divided on the solution. The needs versus wants issue is illustrated in one area where adults identified that children ‘needed’ more supervised play provision whereas young people said they ‘wanted’ was safe spaces for unsupervised play.
Bountagu Big Local carried out video interviews to capture opinions from across their community
Balancing long term development and short term delivery
Residents and, indeed, delivery agencies, were ‘in for the long haul’. Residents are however, very conscious that they need to be seen (by other residents) to show tangible results quite quickly:
‘People accept results, not promises. They want to see a result, and if you do not produce that result, they will go away.’ (Partnership member)
Big Local areas talk about the ‘trade off’ between getting things done versus the importance of embedding the resident-led ethos. Taking time to build local capacity may appear to slow delivery, but has long term gains in terms of widening involvement, building ownership and sustainability.
Balancing the hyper-local focus and/or outward looking orientation
Big Local partnerships have a focus on their immediate area. Such a hyper-local approach can be valued by residents in that services are delivered at the very local level. The ‘downside’ of this hyper-localism is where Big Locals become too inward looking and do not see ‘the bigger picture’. On the other hand, some Big Local partnerships have been very astute at aligning themselves with broader strategic plans, particularly where they live in an area where there are opportunities to do so with the support of additional external funding.
Big Local is intended as a catalyst for change and echoes the message from many funders, including Local Trust, to ‘be innovative, be different, take a risk’. But managing Big Local requires constant judgements – wanting to be innovative but at the same time ensuring that resources are ‘safe in the partnerships’ hands’. The partnerships make complex, often difficult, decisions for which they are accountable. In some areas, substantial amounts of time have been spent on developing due process to ensure equity of spend and transparency of decision-making as a strategy for managing the risk of potential conflict between communities.
And, in the current economic climate, Big Local partnerships often take on the role of protecting the status quo: substituting for services that have been withdrawn or trying to protect existing assets which are under threat of closure. This applies in particular to the withdrawal of youth and play services, the ending of community chest/local authority small grants schemes and the threatened closure of community facilities.
We also saw Big Local partnerships weighing other forms of risk. One Big Local ‘took a risk’ by investing 40% of its money in the development of a play park – despite some scepticism locally that this would just get vandalised. The counter risk was, however, that residents had been arguing for this facility for so long that there was a reputational risk if the partnership did not deliver.
Balancing passion, commitment and conflict
People are putting in a huge amount of passion to make change in Big Local areas. This can bring particular challenges. Whilst there is a history of tensions in earlier area-based initiatives, this has often been between residents and paid officials. As a resident-led initiative, tensions and conflict in Big Local areas are potentially between near family, friends and neighbours. As one person told us, ‘There are amazing people involved, very committed, and passionate …. The downside is that they all want to play a leading role and that has caused conflict.’
Community action has been a new experience for many Big Local residents and there is evidence that they have learnt how to be assertive, to negotiate with others and to be engaged in ‘more thoughtful discussion’.
Partnership members talk about how they have ‘grown together …. and recognise that [they are] working for the whole community.’
The commitment of residents and their belief in creating community change is heart-warming. But what has really impressed me is their growing understanding of the complex processes of making change. Big Local is generating learning about how residents manage these complexities, something that externally-led programmes often fail to recognise or act upon.
The latest research report from Our Bigger Story is here.