‘We are the ears of the community and give them a voice’1 say community councils and planners in local authorities and improvement districts; as well as the NHS and social care. Those who ‘champion wellbeing’2 in communities can must support communities to innovate and solve problems from the ground up by helping them to spark ideas, forge links, identify difficulties and build on good practice to create the communities of the future.
This is no small task, but the potential rewards are great: citizens being supported to remain as independently home-based as possible, with reduced risk of financial and social exclusion and reduced demand on NHS and social services.
Hearing Citizens’ Voices
There are many ways for academics, policy makers, and planners to gather the views of citizens in the communities they serve. Views may be gathered from remotely via helplines, questionnaires, or shared noticeboards or ‘trees’ that encourage people to share their views and tips anonymously to foster exchange and understanding3. Those comfortable to do so should be invited to talk to professionals individually but also within small groups of up to 10 people that can come together to act autonomously to respond to questions and issues. These conversations can help to pinpoint key challenges in the community, as well as attractions and opportunities to explore and promote4.
Citizens are not generally hard to engage, and yet champions setting out to involve community members in their work can find it difficult to build meaningful engagement. This is often a result of unmatched interests (meaning they are focusing on a topic that does not seem important to the community itself), and a mismatch between the targets and experiences of those doing the work, and those living in the area. Engaging with the community earlier in the process may address these issues.
Helping Citizens to Feel Heard
Yet it takes effort to forge trust between professionals and community members while still recognising that different groups may have different interests- and trust is required. Citizens must be able to trust that those championing their communities are genuinely doing so. They should be able to see their voices reflected in new local plans5, opportunities for co-design or co-production6, planned ‘Pathways to Impact’7 and ongoing research into issues such as on housing.
Those members of the public motivated to do so can always request information from central and local government, Parliament, the NHS, universities and colleges and other designated public authorities8 but this should not be necessary in order to find out what happened to a project that they added their voice to.
Instead those working in communities should make efforts to ensure their information is accessible to the public. This can include creating initiative summaries which provide some insight into a project before pointing the reader to a website or key contact that they can use to find further information. These summaries should be distributed in ways that make sense for the community, be it bulletins, newsletters, or a good-old-fashioned community notice board (thus overcoming any digital divide due to choice of app).
This can prove challenging, particularly if those conducting the work are unused to producing lay summaries that describe their work clearly in ways that make the subject understandable to the reader while stimulating interest. Citizens may also stop engaging due to a perceived lack of progress due to slow ethical approval, issues with copyright and contracting, or feeling undervalued when meetings are postponed or contact with the professionals undertaking the work are consistently unavailable.
Ongoing engagement should also be supported through ongoing activities within the community. This may include offering drop-in sessions that provide an opportunity for peer support and discussion, running courses or events sharing knowledge and advice, and or other engaging activities designed to promote shared interest across generations and harness energy in the community; staging competitions to promote interests across generations and groups to harness energies9, 10.
Finally, checklists of potential joint actions11 should should ensure that findings are shared in ways that are useful to the community members themselves, with timely review involving all parties on completion of initiatives and projects12.
The Benefits of Engaging
While the process of engaging community members can be difficult, it does have its benefits! Here are just some of the positive points I’ve gained from being a community researcher:
- Engaging provides an opportunity to help strengthen links between universities and
the general public, policy, research, and education.
- There’s a feel good factor from the stimulation of working with the university
team, knowing something useful is being done while meeting other people
and learning new things.
- Great to work with everyone and keep my research, writing and editing skills
- Such co-production gives welcome opportunity to keep the brain ticking while continuing to contribute to an area of research which we have to consider for ourselves.
- I felt my lay person’s view to co-production helped ease true partnership so making long-term difference.
- Being involved in the co-production of the research informed and uplifted me hugely.