Camden Council has a vision for an open council, where all citizens have a say and people and agencies come together to get things done. But citizen engagement is not as simple as just opening the doors.
This year, Camden’s Health and Wellbeing Board set out to develop a unique, citizen-led approach to examine the local issues around health and wellbeing and explore opportunities for the Council and health partners to work in closer partnership. For the past 9 months, we’ve been working with Camden Council on a Neighbourhood Assembly, a neighbourhood-based pilot delivered by residents and the contributions of local and community-based organisations contributed to the process.
Doing it differently
My colleague, Eva, wrote earlier this about how our approach to the neighbourhood assembly differs from the traditional citizens’ assembly, blending deliberative democracy and co-design approaches. Over 150 energetic residents from West Camden, broadly representative of the diversity of that area, took part in 15 evening sessions exploring the evidence around health and wellbeing challenges, conducting research within their networks and developing and testing ideas for change.
The biggest outcome was seeing ideas generated and implemented, for the community by the community. As we progressed, an unintended secondary outcome emerged: we formed a community.
Building a collective purpose
Recently, we’ve all seen the power of a shared purpose. The climate emergency and recent climate strikes have mobilised people globally to rally behind a common cause. I was proud to march with my colleagues and walk side by side with hundreds of strangers advocating for a better world.
What if councils could inspire that same level of passion and conviction?
Camden’s Neighborhood Assembly brought together a group of almost perfect strangers, a challenge and opportunity that resonated with them all. With a shared purpose, everyone was given the space to participate and contribute to the vision for their local area, critiquing and building on ideas through a co-design process.
What’s particularly different about the Neighbourhood Assembly approach is the output. A more traditional citizens’ assembly would produce a list of recommendations for the council to deliver. But the ideas and accompanying roadmaps created through these assemblies build on existing local efforts, requiring a combination of council, community partner and resident involvement to make them a success.
“People criticise the council, but this amazing assembly is doing things for people, by people in Camden.” — participant
90% of the participants told us that they felt part of the decision-making process and felt ownership over the ideas. By the end of our time together, every single resident had exchanged phone numbers and many have pledged to continue spending time together beyond the formal assembly.
Inclusive by design
People have diverse needs. If your format for engagement is uniform, you’ll get a uniform community.
There are a lot of ways to engage people facing different barriers. Time, childcare, transportation and many other blockers exist that will cause people to hesitate to be involved, regularly involved, or just disengage. We need to meet people where they’re at.
We recruited participants using community researchers, local stakeholders with networks we could reach and literally meeting people where they’re at with street engagement. We also welcomed flexibility, intentionally keeping membership to the Assembly open, as opposed to the fixed membership model in a traditional citizens’ assembly and hosting evening sessions to involve as many people as possible.
These tactics meant people were free to join or leave throughout the process and we could continually engage new groups who hadn’t yet been represented. There’s so much more that could be done for people, taking into consideration accessibility or childcare needs.
Collective decision-making is hard. From the early weeks of questioning how we’d do it, to actually creating roadmaps for ideas, we made tough decisions that will drive positive outcomes for the community.
Throughout, it was important to remind everyone, both citizens and council staff, how far we’ve come. Acknowledging our progress and milestones, we promoted positivity and hope, built trust and gained buy-in. We even made certificates of public service for all participants, signed by the Deputy Leader of the Council. It was a small but important gesture of the incredible time people volunteered to the Assembly.
When we set out to do this work, we hadn’t anticipated that such a strong community would form. Our final session, sharing food and asking what the future was, there was a resounding excitement. “We’re going to keep meeting.” Camden and the community will be taking this learning forward, continuing to experiment with citizen engagement to develop ideas and outcomes for lasting change across the council.