Resident involvement: a new approach

I worked for several years at a housing association in London. One of my responsibilities there was to facilitate ‘resident engagement’.

Since then I have had a number of other jobs at government agencies, charities and at local authorities. This post is a look back at how I did resident engagement then and what I have learnt since.

I hope this will be of interest to anyone who wants to engage citizens or people that use public services services, either to improve the services, to strengthen communities or to deepen democracy.

Old approach to resident engagement

The predominant way I facilitated ‘resident engagement’ when I was working for the housing associaiton was by presenting all tenants with “a menu of options” for how they could get involved.

Options included;

  • Asking individual tenants to help with anti-social behaviour cases and report repairs to communal areas
  • Joint inspection of cleaning of communal areas
  • Meetings of tenants to draw up neighborhood action plans along the lines of a. Problem b. Solution c. Person responsible d. Timescale
  • Election to the Tenant steering group that had lots of meetings
  • Attending a focus groups for new ideas and policies
  • Filling out surveys about the services we provided and about the area

The strength of this approach was that it gave tenants a number of different ways of getting involved, depending on their individual preferences.

The disadvantages of this approach though are pretty obvious. None of these activities is particularly enjoyable and I can hear someone saying “isn’t that your job” to each one.

If I knew then what I knew now…

Reflecting on what I have learnt since then I would do resident engagement in a very different way.

Instead of structuring it around a menu of options for involvement I would have three aspects;

  • Match funding
  • Asset Mapping
  • Listening

Match funding

Rather than asking people to come forward with problems that need solving by professionals, I now believe that its better to ask people to come up with ideas that they would like to pursue themselves and then partially funding these projects.

The criteria would be pretty loose, with small pots of money given out. Examples of where this has been successful include Seattle and the Grassroots Grants programme.

 

Asset Mapping

Rather than asking residents to help identify problem with services such as poor cleaning of the communal areas, I now think it is more powerful to ask people to identify what they love and cherish about their area.

This can include, neighbours, buildings, spaces, associations, culture and any number of other things. Not only is this a more fun activity to be part of, it can also serve as the basis for creating neighbourhood plans.

Listening

There is sometimes a danger that people who say we should have a more creative, appreciative approach to resident engagement, can be seen to be uninterested in solving problems. It’s all ‘celebrating success’ and no ‘who will fix the drains’.

Rather than sending out surveys or inviting people to tenants association meetings as a way of identifying problems, I now think a better approach is to concentrating on listening.

Staff and organizations need to be better at listening to the concerns of citizens and people who use public services whenever they voice them. This also means that staff need to be better at being in places where they can listen, i.e. going to where people are and listening to them

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