Routes and barriers to citizen governance – a Joseph Rowntree Report from Birmingham and Wolverhampton

Joseph Rowntree Foundation Santosh Rai

Good community leaders need to be connected, competent and of good character. That is one of the blindingly obvious conclusions of a survey in the West Midlands for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The researcher explains what they set out to do

This study examined the realities of citizen governance from the perspective of participants living and working within six Birmingham wards, and 50 women from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. BME women refers to Asian women from Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds and black women, including black Caribbean and black African.

The findings (summarised here) are a bit of a statement of the obvious. This is possibly the most interesting and obvious:

The defining components of strong, effective leadership were seen as character, connectedness and competence. Leaders were expected to be of ‘good’ character with high standards of personal conduct, particularly trustworthiness, integrity and honesty. Conduct most likely to cause concern was the appearance of questionable ethics, hidden personal agendas and duplicity.
Being connected to the communities they served was also considered an important aspect of community leadership, whether through residency in the area or having an emotional or spiritual association. Leadership perceived to be driven by officialdom and bureaucrats through impersonal institutional structures inspired less confidence than that by known individuals such as councillors and community leaders.
In addition to technical competences, softer ‘people and communication skills’, particularly the art of listening, were considered most important. These skills were needed to motivate others, resolve conflict and bring together disparate groups.

Recently I’ve been reporting for the Grassroots Channel on the Neighbourhood Performance Reward Grant (the following links are to related video and podcast audio from Sparkbrook, Kingstanding, Washwood Heath and Bordesley Green). The NPRG is an experiment which provides resident groups with £10,000 to solve (or make reasonable agreed progress on) a local problem which has not responded consistently or well to government (local,national etc) efforts. Meet agreed targets and a further £15,000 is available to achieve more. Now clearly I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in principal, but what interests me is what effect it might have on leadership and residents getting involved in local governance.You see money focuses the mind. Power over resources is a great way to test the leadership qualities outlined above. It allows individuals to flex the integrity and competence muscle groups. Control over resources is also a more direct way to forge relationships – it is where compromise needs to happen. Sure things can go wrong – but they also go right faster when real resources are to hand.
So I would like to add another element to the following conclusions to this report.

Money If local people are to have a more effective role in local governance they need to have real control over money, the effort that can buy and the decision making that requires.

The study found a mismatch between ambitions for governance and the reality of governance. To address this imbalance the following areas are highlighted.
Governance leadership – strong frontline leadership is vital for increasing trust and widening local governance’s reach and impact. This requires leaders such as councillors, chairs and appointed officials who are empowered and equipped for the task and fully committed to working in partnership with communities. Building confidence also depends on leaders displaying exemplary character and behaviour, maintaining the highest ethical standards and development of strong public accountability structures.
Building inclusive governance – skilled leadership is integral for achieving co-operation by communities and increased representation by all ethnic groups. Priorities include counteracting discrimination, promoting equality and ensuring that the values and principles of inclusive governance are reflected within local structures. Other measures needed are:

1. Open, honest dialogue to increase understanding of the specific challenges faced by faith groups.

2. Mentoring programmes and positive role models to support engagement by BME women; and

3. Appropriate capacity building and training support.

Strengthening engagement structures – a more positive environment with a ‘listening, can-do’ culture is needed to increase community confidence, underpinned by an effective communication strategy. This includes highlighting success stories, providing opportunities to learn about the aims and processes of local governance, timely feedback on consultations, a more focused agenda for meetings, and ensuring that communities’ needs and concerns are taken into account in the planning stages.
Harnessing motivations – people with aspirations and potential to engage in governance exist in all ethnic communities and all types of neighbourhoods. However, different communities face different obstacles, and structures that might be appropriate in one neighbourhood might not be appropriate in another. To ensure that everyone has the equal opportunity to participate, local government and partners need to more clearly identify and challenge the specific barriers existing within their localities and communities.
Governance definition – greater clarity is needed about what encompasses local governance.

Thanks to Andrew for telling me about the report.

One comment

  1. David Barrie says:

    The NPRG seems like a great idea. Power over resources *is* a good way to test leadership but only so long as those who going to be charged with implementing the resources are involved in the process at the same time. And so long as it’s clear that people are using their own money – i.e. it’s not some miracle donation from central or local government that’s being used but the taxpayer’s. People are deciding how to spend their *own* money. Usually, this should focus the mind – or not, in my case!

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