heart of policy-making, institute for community studies
© Sharad Raval

Emily Morrison, Head of the Institute for Community Studies, explains that the heart of policy-making should be the communities involved

Time and time again we hear about the necessity of listening to communities more; that governments and those who make policy affecting communities are so far removed from the effects of it, that policy can never reflect that which the community needs. So, how to make sure you’re hearing everyone’s voices? How to ensure you’re not hearing from the same people repeatedly? Why don’t more people want to be involved? These are just some of the big questions we tackled in a recent research effort “Safety in Numbers?” — a co-created research agenda with communities — which, in turn, resulted in the launch of a new methodology for community engagement that is ready for policy-makers (and researchers and funders) to adopt immediately.

Communities typically have little direct influence on policy and accompanying research agendas, which are usually set by ‘experts’ or mediated by the established regime of knowledge held by civil society and policy. Traditional consultation and participation approaches often fall short of being inclusive and can end up instituting a ‘top-down’ approach to determining the issues on which input is valued – or solely listening to the same, ‘engaged’ voices. Given that the development of policy largely relies on the insights obtained from such types of research, the situation has to change.

The current heart of policy-making

With a recession on the horizon and the old divisions of Brexit bubbling up again, it’s no exaggeration to say that today’s policy-makers and social practitioners must embrace new ways of understanding and engaging communities in the UK or they will exacerbate existing social inequalities and and existing grievances about who is listened to, when and how. Safety in Numbers? shows that even prior to the pandemic, communities were already feeling unsafe, fractious and un-listened to; that they were bearing a heavy burden, plugging gaps in local provision left by austerity or taking direct leadership on issues when local or national government action is perceived as too slow or insufficient.

The good news for those involved in understanding communities or developing policy for social issues is that a new methodology is on the table for the taking. First and foremost, the new methodology requires a shift in mindset – to be led from community experiences as to what the urgent issues are and how they are interconnected at the local level. By taking the broad approach of “what matters to this community?” you overcome limiting, single-issue views or assumptions that you already know what matters about the heart of policy-making. Therefore that is where research and solutions are needed.

Talking about the ‘community’ is not always an easy entry point, but it is a useful lens that illuminates how people relate to complex systems of welfare, economy and technology. Once you start the dialogue, ‘community’ catalyses discussions about social values, opens debates about individual, collective and authorities’ responsibility, and reveals people and place-based vulnerabilities. This creates connections to larger questions of loss, opportunity, and what kind of society people in the UK want to live in.

The second key pillar of this new approach is the use of guiding principles, which we applied to the Institute for Community Studies (ICS) co-created research effort.

The five key principles for policy-making:

  1. Place the priorities and questions of people and communities at the heart of the agenda – start enquiry and intervention from what matters to them.
  2. Be as inclusive and representative as possible – across all nations and regions of the UK, and reflecting the diversity of people and places in demographic, socio-economic terms, and avoiding exclusion which might arise due to the digital divide or other barriers to participation.
  3. Recognise and respect that at every geographical level, communities have unique characteristics and needs, and to balance that against the many commonalities that people share in terms of hopes and fears, questions and priorities.
  4. Create an agenda in which the questions are specific enough to reflect the nuance of community priorities, while reflecting the breadth of the underlying issues, leaving scope for more narrowly focused research questions to be developed (e.g. investigating the issue through a specific theoretical, geographic, or thematic lens).
  5. Take a laser-like approach to understanding the issues which matter most to communities and engage the collaborative view of sector experts, to identify where engaging communities can add genuine value in answering ‘what works?’

Ultimately, this shift in approach for policy-makers and researchers alike requires deep-listening and a deep shift in our narratives about communities, and our commitment in how to engage with them. The post-pandemic recovery period is a unique opportunity to disrupt the status quo in how we listen to what matters to communities and to chart a new course with them; how we research and make policy but also how we work in civil society. Put communities at the heart of the process from the start and give legitimacy to their stories as evidence of what’s working, if we want to effectively chart a course through these uncertain times.

The new ICS approach creates a roadmap of just how that can be done. To find out more, visit: https://icstudies.org.uk/our-approach/safety-numbers


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