An unusual Christmas gift

In the early hours of this morning (Wednesday 9 December), away from all the Christmas merriment, when all was quiet about, something stirred on the internet. This something was the launch of the Government’s new ‘One Place’ website and although no mince pies or sherry were needed to encourage a visit to every household in the UK, each still received a sack full of presents from our auditing Santa.

Now just to be clear, these ‘presents’ that each and every household has access to via the website, don’t look that exciting on first glance. In fact they mainly consist of a lot of reports about how people’s local statutory bodies are performing and how this contributes to improvements in their local communities, but on further inspection these gifts could become surprisingly useful – just like those boring socks we unwrapped last year and later found to be unexpectedly warm, even practical and a welcome comfort as the year progressed. The same could be true about the information on the website, sort of.

If you were to punch in ‘One Place’ into any search engine you will be transported to a portal where every local authority’s Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) had been placed. These reports detail performance indicators by themes in a local area so a community’s prevailing narrative is painted. This picture includes all aspects of what is important to people: schools, health care, local services and police to name a few. This means you and I can see what all the important issues are all in one place. Full details are available on the website for all to see.

This is an exercise in simplicity and transparency: an attempt to create a narrative to describe a local area being on a quest to maintain certain standards or improve them, and everyone’s along for the ride. Sounds all very well, but there are two concerns. Firstly what happens if the narrative that is created is not recognised by those people living in the community? The place that is being described to them from performance indicators is not the place that they know.  This could automatically disillusion them from changing their behaviours to improve that narrative.

The second issue and the more important of the two: are the ‘right’ local residents going to be engaging with the One Place website, start to become more empowered, contribute to the narrative and change their behaviour. By the ‘right’ sort of people, I mean will this system of reporting start to engage with the hard-to-engage people and therefore invite them into the narrative?

From our understanding and work with local authorities on community cohesion and engagement the answer is probably not, but that is the challenge for local authorities to savour; the work begins with the launch of the new website – interpreting is the easier exercise, changing behaviour is more difficult. Local authorities have the challenge to bring this narrative to people in their communities so it is passed on from peer to peer. The auditors have written an understandable story, now local authorities need to deliver that story to local residents, ask them to read it to others and in some cases train them to do so effectively. Only then can the development of this narrative be considered.

This is where TCC has experience in developing these community champions to work alongside local authorities to champion their work locally, not just explaining their successes but working with community groups to understand the issues that may affect the development of this narrative. And during these times local authorities can’t afford to get it wrong, every pond spent on trying to improve this narrative needs to actual improve it, otherwise the way local residents think about their community will not change and future CAA reports will reflect this.

So what about current reports – all throughout these CAAs local authorities are praised for their community work. From Bexley to Barking and Dagenham and from Lewisham to North Tyneside each of these local authorities narratives have been developed through the work that has been done on Community Communicators and the Young Mayor scheme. We believe it’s schemes like these that help create ‘community sprit’ and demonstrate that the right steps are being taken to ‘build trust in the community’.

The audit commission and its partners should be praised for trying to achieve something different and TCC is there at the sharp end working with local authorities to show others how it should be done. If local authorities wish to pull up their comfortable socks and start developing this narrative in time for 2011 they should begin to think a little about Community Spirit as well as Christmas Spirit.

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