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Making the Fairy Tale Real: a story of inactive to active citizenship

“Mentally, I was drained;
Physically, I was done; and
emotionally I was dead.
Now I have new life”

These are the words of a resident who had no faith, trust or confidence in public services or her community.

‘From Fairy Tale to Reality’ is the title of a recent INVOLVE/RSA publication which sets out five myths of engagement:

  1. Engagement is too expensive
  2. Citizens aren’t up to it
  3. Engagement only works for easy issues
  4. Citizen power is a floodgate we should avoid at all costs
  5. Citizens don’t want to be involved, they just want good services


As an engagement specialist it was refreshing to read this document – stating what all engagement specialists already know.  I believe ‘the cuts’ could be the best thing that happened in the world of engagement: with no ‘central team’ or ‘champion’s’, all public servants could start to think about public service and who they serve, so that the rhetoric of putting communities first might become a reality.  My reservations though were that it would become everyone’s business and no one’s business, and that public services would continue to learn the rhetoric of asset-based community development, meaningful consultation and engagement etc. but fail to put it in to practice.

One of the things that irritates me most (bear with me it is a common rant!) is when I hear people arguing that they can’t do the really meaningful engagement because they don’t have the resources and/or are not quite ready yet. Those arguments are used as an excuse to take ‘small steps first’.   What they really mean is they will continue to do what they used to do but label it with new language, which looks like they know their stuff, and then develop a case study that shows how fantastic they are (I’m not being cynical here – it is evidence based!).  They make the mistake of confusing activity with progress (can’t remember which philosopher said that!)

Which listening approach will you adopt?

Putting in place the right learning environment, and developing the right skills to enable active citizenship and social responsibility requires those providing services to be able to listen.  This is easier said than done.  Which listening method will you use to understand the ‘user pathway’? Which will you use to involve people in difficult budget decisions? Which will you use if you want to check that your communications programme is getting to those who most need to hear and act on the message? Which will you use to develop community networks and assets more fully? And which will you use to develop active citizenship? I could go on, and I could become disheartened as I watch some really good individuals (Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan is one) try to embed ‘voice’ into the way they work, against an ironic tide of resistance from the very public ‘servants’ who are there to serve us.

Ok so cynicism and rant over for a minute; Greater Manchester Police (GMP) invested in testing a new way of engaging communities by supporting their staff to really listen.  The first phase of the programme concluded in May 2013 (five months ago).  Some of those who participated have actively embedded the skills and learning in their daily practice, to achieve positive outcomes.

It was a tweet yesterday and a ‘phone call from a resident that inspired me to write this – she told me that her involvement in the MutualGain programme haschanged her life – she is happy now’.  This is not hyperbole I promise.

 One Person’s Story

May had no time for public services in her area and knew little about how they were going to improve her quality of life and make the area better.  No she didn’t read your leaflets or feel compelled to attend the gala events.  She didn’t know her local Councillor, and was having a tough time, struggling with what life was throwing at her.

Fleeing the Northern Ireland conflict, she came to England for a better life.  But here she faced hate crime because she was married to a Muslim and her children were Muslim: she had bullets fired at her window and was taunted regularly.  After another move to Cheetham Hill in Manchester where the Muslim population was larger, and she hoped for a greater sense of belonging, she met Colin who is a Police Constable participating in the MutualGain programme.

Cynical about what MutualGain could teach him about engagement – he accepted our challenge that we would ‘change his mind’  (he’s got that great human quality which means he takes up whatever challenge is thrown his way!).  He argued that he had been on all the training that the police provided and was part of the PREVENT[1] team etc. and still nothing worked – people just don’t want to get involved he told us; they don’t turn up at ward panel meetings or gala events; we try hard but they just aren’t interested; they just want us to do a good job.

Following a positive engagement process which focuses on listening and not telling (and it really isn’t always as straightforward as people think), May and Colin have built a network of over 200 local people who share information and intelligence about safety, but who now also task each other to improve the neighbourhood.  The Council love May and her network and she has been nominated for a number of local awards.  She is now a VERY active citizen who takes her social responsibility very seriously.  But what makes me realise this is all worthwhile is when it is done properly the public sector really can change peoples’ lives for the better.

Here are some snippets from the conversation I had with her today:

Tackling Isolation

I was a loner – I didn’t go through the door for five months.  I was depressed – I didn’t feel like I belonged here, and I was going through a very difficult divorce as well as being a victim of my life savings being stolen.  It was hard.  But through this I have made some really good friends, I go out now and my neighbours come to see me for the least wee thing relating to crime, and local things happening in the area.  People didn’t used to talk but now they stop me and tell me things all the time.  I feel a completely different person, even in the way I dress – I am a different person altogether now’

Reassurance through engagement

When I asked her about her relationship with the police now she said: ‘When Colin is on duty, he’ll stop by and just knock to check I am ok, but it’s not just Colin.  I feel reassured that GMP are there for me 24/7 because of what Colin and you guys have done.  I help other people now and it feels really good’.

I asked what type of things she now gets involved with which help others and she gave four different examples:

Domestic Violence Support through Neighbourliness

‘I help with some of the domestic violence in the street.  The couple now come into me when they have had a fight and I keep them separate while the police are called if that is needed.  I didn’t know them before but they came to the event and we started talking from there.  I got to know them separately because they both got involved in different bits of what I was doing but they didn’t tell each other!  I am now a mediator for them and ‘aunty’ to their kids who also share their problems with me.

Acquisitive Crime

Another time was when a guy up the road saw a car being stolen – he phoned the police and me, and comes to talk to me now whenever he sees things happening which aren’t good for our community.

Vulnerable Young People

The Childrens’ home up the road now talk things through with me too because they have a lot of problems with the kids there so we talk about what might be possible in the community.

Public- Private Housing Connections

But it’s not just our community.  We now talk to the private estate behind us and recently when someone told me they were homeless, the new friend I had made on that estate, sorted out some rented accommodation for them.  It’s brilliant and I can’t believe how it has really changed my life.  I don’t know whether to sing or dance – it’s just great. I told her to do both!

There are many May’s out there.  Our special thanks to Colin for taking the challenge on and testing out new ways of working, even when it has been very difficult.  He is evidence that there are very committed police who want to make a difference – they just need to be shown how, and be willing to learn.

Are you one of those people espousing one of the five common myths of engagement?  Can I appeal to you not do so as it has a negative implication all round. Seeing is believing – it is possible to engage, you just need to know how.

I’ve seen lots of May’s in my years of engagement. I have also seen many who have potential, but the statutory services don’t treat them with dignity, or know how to listen properly.  During times of austerity and the possible negative implications of reduced services, it is time to invest public money wisely – invest in supporting your community and the reward will be huge.  It really is possible to create mutual gain if you change your attitude to engagement.    Well done May and all the community of Cheetham Hill for showing that active citizenship is still alive – it just needs to be mobilised!

Engagement formula