Tag Archives: engagement

Neighbourhood policing, digital engagement and community development

One of the first media stories to catch my eye as I dragged myself back to work from my post-Christmas cheese and chocolate-induced stupor, was this Telegraph story about increasing use of social media by police officers and forces to engage with the public; the so-called “new version of bobbies on the beat”.

It is easy to be churlish; to think of it as a corner-cutting or tokenistic exercise, or a cheap way of dealing with cutbacks. Working in and with communities for over 15 years, a visible police presence was one of the ‘staple’ demands of communities; up there with “something for kids to do”. I’m less ‘frontline’ now but I imagine it remains the case. This is, however, despite there being little evidence that the traditional British bobby on the beat has ever had any actual impact.

When I worked in Communities First in communities of the Gwent valleys the turnover of neighbourhood bobbies was huge. In 5 years I worked with over twenty. To be perfectly honest the vast majority of them never truly learned enough about their communities; they seldom established productive relationships with partners; and it undermined the credibility of the neighbourhood bobby role. I recall one bobby telling me that she would return after days off to often see a mountain of enquiries and correspondence related to her patch that had been left unattended because her colleagues saw them as only hers to deal with. Another remarked how many of her colleagues were disinterested in the neighbourhood role because it wasn’t as “sexy” as other policing roles and duties.

Another perception held by the community that served to erode the credibility of the neighbourhood role was that of sergeants who oversaw the neighbourhood division doing the job as a final ‘call of duty’ before retirement; a cushy desk-job that wasn’t taken seriously. Again, the turnover in personnel in this role was high and served to alienate communities rather than foster cohesive relationships. From a community development point of view I could see plain as day where the police were going wrong, organisationally and often individually:

  • they didn’t involve people in decision-making
  • they would obscure matters and alienate people through neglecting to de-jargonise terms
  • they would not, or at least only tokenistically, promote the opportunity for communities to define their priorities (though the introduction of PACT meetings went some way to addressing this)
  • didn’t seek out diversity and plurality of views (attending a CF Partnership meeting, though necessary, should have not on its own ticked the box ‘Engagement’, but often did)
  • most importantly, it was not clear whether collective reflection on their practice, values and beliefs was a routine process

Curiously, the most effective neighbourhood bobby I ever worked with was a relatively new recruit having had a background as a manager of a Sainsbury supermarket. With customer service skills honed in that cut-throat sector he recognised the merit in making people feel valued, taking time out for them, explaining decisions and providing feedback. Without necessarily realising it he would probably not learn much new if the National Principles for Public Engagement were placed in front of him.

If Twitter and Facebook allow for engagement that is responsive, personable, in an appropriate level of formality and focused on individual and/or community needs then it is arguably providing for a more effective interface with communities than ‘traditional’ neighbourhood policing can do; or at least the neighbourhood policing I have witnessed.

The days of police surgeries are increasingly numbered in communities; and if they aren’t in some communities, they should be. I remember these being a routine feature in communities: an advertised weekly/fortnightly drop-in in a community setting where the neighbourhood officer and perhaps a PCSO would be available. Certainly informal and locally accessible, they tended however to be poorly attended . Most people with crime and community safety issues don’t want to advertise that they are off to speak with the police. The police knew this and the the community representatives/leaders knew this. Suggest stopping them or finding alternative means of engagement would be resisted; a veritable case of doing what has always been done irrespective of the results or impact. They became a crutch to communities who feared losing something that they had a degree of control over against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with and a lack of control and influence on a service as outlined above.

Interestingly, I recall encountering a CF team in the Gwent valleys about 3 years ago who mentioned how their neighbourhood officers would now drop-in to the CF office of a Monday morning, access a PC and browse local Facebook pages. They gleaned more intelligence about the community and learned more about specific instances of disorder or nuisance this way than in a month or more’s worth of surgeries. They could also build a more informed and accurate picture of events over a weekend from the myriad of different perspectives that were provided by people sharing and interacting on Facebook. Would people confide this with bobbies face-to-face in a surgery setting? The consensus was overwhelmingly not, and the time taken to build a similar picture in ‘traditional’ methods was so much greater.

At that time the bobbies didn’t have their own Facebook page and so there was little engagement. The Devon and Cornwall example in the Telegraph article, and in a Welsh context the reporting of crime – or “crimemongering” – by the popular @EvanstheCrime, highlight the benefits of taking that bold step and not just ‘lurking’ but actively engaging. I’d be curious to know whether the Gwent example eventually did this and how it has affected their relationship with the local community.

Like in so many instances of tentative public sector embrace of social media, they probably encountered some resistance or apprehension on the part of their seniors if they did become more active and participative; the article acknowledges this was certainly the case in Devon and Cornwall:

“force bosses were initially uncertain about whether their officers should use the tool, but are now fully behind the new method of community engagement”

Having spent a lot of focus and time in work of late on welfare reform where there are concerns about the impact of a digital-by-default approach to aspects of benefit claims, rent management and compulsory job search, there is a parallel here with policing. Tackling people’s perception of crime is critical, irrespective of the actual recorded crime; which incidentally was always regarded with suspicion anyway because the their poor trust in policing prompted many people to see the reporting of crime as a pointless exercise. If, say, older people or disabled people could attend a surgery and subsequently feel safer (let alone listened to or feel engaged) then this is important; digital engagement ought not become the default mechanism because there are people who lack the digital literacy and access to technology to engage fully, even partially, via social media. There remains a need for informal, accessible, safe and occasionally discreet face to face engagement and a drop-in at a sheltered housing scheme or a youth club or in partnership with a support group/agency should not be rejected completely.

Speaking of youth clubs, though the article doesn’t touch on this, I’m also interested in the extent to which young people’s engagement with policing is enhanced and improved via a shift to increased digital and social media engagement. Should digital engagement repeat mistakes I used to witness – seek narrow range of views, jargonise,

sweeney-296x370There is a lot of evidence, at least anecdotally within Communities First, that young people are engaging more effectively with the programme and articulating their thoughts, desires, ideas and concerns because engagement is aligning itself with how young people are engaging with each other. I recall the ‘old model’ of engagement did little, in my experience, to narrow the chasm in the relationship between police and (most) young people.

Anyway, I’ll leave the last word to @HonestFrank who tantalises at what The Sweeney in a digitally-engaged age of neighbourhood policing might look like…

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Seizing back ‘community’

In my day job I encounter the word ‘community’ dozens of times a day, hundreds of times a week. I use the term myself almost as many times again. I like to think on most occasions it is being used intentionally, genuinely and honestly. But on occasions it is not. It is used inappropriately, for ulterior self-serving motives, or in a patronising, pejroative manner. Whether it is done so intentionally or unintentionally matters little, for its mis-use or abuse brings with it potentially heavy consequences for those of us who believe we use it with due care and attention.

What prompted me to write this was reading a study about a “community training and education centre” in south Wales. I shall not name the centre, the area in which it is located or the organisations that manage it. My intention is not to judge the facility and those involved with it; indeed, I endorse the study’s conclusions that it has the potential to derive socio-economic benefits for people who use it and live near it. Neither do I lay claim to any of the findings in the study. I merely refer to it in order to illustrate a broader point.

That’s the disclaimers over.

The centre doesn’t, admittedly, feature the word ‘community’ in its name. It is an education and training centre and it is located in a deprived community. Or in other words a community that is oppressed by the inequalities of, and the uneven development perpetuated by, contemporary capitalism; but that risks being tempted down another path. Maybe another day. Back to the centre….

It is a centre whose aim is to promote and enhance access to training and lifelong learning opportunities. Laudable indeed for a community where low educational and skills (and health) levels undermine people’s abilities to penetrate, remain in and, perhaps most importantly, navigate the labour market. However it is branded and referred to as, and colloquially assumes the term of, a ‘community’ facility. This all seems reasonable. Except the study reveals that:

  • the centre is managed by the local authority, and specifically by a department that has only a limited public-facing remit
  • the centre is owned by the local authority
  • there was “little community involvement in its design”
  • there is “little community involvement” in its operation
  • it is remote from the main residential area of the community it is there to serve

It begs the question: on what reasonable grounds can it be referred to as a ‘community’ facility? The local community did not have input to the design let alone have any input to the budgeting, contractual and project management aspects of the initial development. It has minimal input to the current management and operation of the facility. It is geographically peripheral from the community (not that this means that it must automatically be culturally and socially peripheral).

Large public organisations often assign the word community to its activities (or activities on which it is a lead partner) in order to differentiate them from its core corporate activities. Or to denote the point of delivery or location of an activity as away from a recognised central point. A more hawkish critique would be to suggest that local authorities use the term community tokenistically to massage and gain acceptance for developments and activities. They are ‘community’ developments based on the physical, cultural or organisational distance from a corporate centre and not in any way a reflection of community interest. This is dangerous to a more genuine use of the word ‘community’. Those developments about which communities are unaware; about which they have little opportunity to show dissent and/or offer alternatives; of which they are passive consumers; and, fundamentally, which contribute to a vision of a community that is not shared locally will not gain what is often referred to in shorthand as community ‘buy-in’.

This translates itself into, among other things, low footfall, both casual (i.e., dropping-in) and purposeful (i.e., to access particular services); low income generation and potential loss-making; alienation of those working at, or out of, the centre; potentially anti-social behaviour; and resentment from local people and partner agencies at the perceived ‘waste of money’. It is the latter two that an often conservative local press, which is also often impatient to understand the finer details of such developments, latch onto and publicise. Those interests that ideologically reject forms of welfarism, and state intervention (at a local or any other level) identify the term ‘community’ as one which denotes in developments a lack of financial rigour, robust management, professionalism and clarity of purpose. The fact that such ‘community’ projects or initiatives are often associated with disadvantaged communities leads to the criticism, by extension, of these communities, their perceived deficiencies and is a convenient means of ignoring the oppressive factors that insulates disadvantage in such communities (I’ve almost wandered off down that path again). It acquires a pejorativeness but one which has no origin in the community itself but in the actions of the mobilisers of a development who label it, with abandon, as being of or for a ‘community’.

The centre in question cost over £2.5 million and there is a severe risk that it acquires white elephant status among the local population and media. In such cases the community whose input, views and involvement were not sought at the outset and throughout the development and delivery process are often unfairly perceived as protagonists, over and above the fact that on a more fundamental level individuals potentially end up missing out on the supposed practical benefits that the development was intended to bring (in the case of this centre, qualifications, soft skills, affordable childcare, improved nutrition and diet, etc.)

There is a pressing need for scrutiny of ‘community’ proposals in order to ascertain whether, in simple terms, the term community is being employed genuinely or cosmetically, serving, as it might, interests other than those of the community/-ies. This need will gain a greater imperative in the next few years as punitive cuts to public and third sector budgets demand greater economies of scale, co-operation, joint working and collaboration. Unless communities are involved as equal partners and collaborators in these developments there is the risk that the term ‘community’ becomes a recklessly used label to justify, massage or railroad proposals that actually have no community involvement, interest or dividend.

As ever disdvantaged communities are those most at risk here. Where they lack the literacy, confidence, receptive conduits, and ability to mobilise a counter-voice then there can be insufficient means of challenging and withstanding such disingenuousness. Community development workers are critical to ensure that such interests are advocated and to provide the practical means of mobilising to articulate. Scrutinising the use of the term ‘community’ is the first step in seizing it back from those who seek to use it for their own interests.

Finally, back to the centre. The study concludes that there is a potentially promising future for it, and, hopefully, by extension for local residents. It can be financially viable; could become community-owned; and be instrumental in tackling the disadvantage that exists locally. That a team of community development workers hand in hand with a core of local activists have supported the centre, lobbied, and sought the finance, for the study to be completed and have badgered the local authority to consider imaginative proposals for the funding, management and ownership of the centre is testament to my point about the importance of community development. I suppose I should congratulate the local authority in question for its willingness to contribute to the debate about the centre’s future. Here’s to the future of the centre and that community, and many others like them.

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