Sharing Power with Residents — Barking and Dagenham’s Resident’s Panel
We’re speaking with government leaders, civil servants and public sector workers around the United Kingdom to understand how they’re developing stronger relationships with residents they serve. The examples we spotlight are part of a broader movement towards a more human government that holds values such as empathy, trust and openness.
On a rainy Saturday in early November, a group of 9 Barking and Dagenham residents, known as the Resident’s Panel, gathered to discuss ideas to improve their neighbourhood. The panel listens to pitches for local projects aimed to strengthen their community and ultimately determines whether or not they should receive funding. The Neighbourhood Fund, an initiative set up by the local council in early 2019, has already provided over £110k to 13 local community groups for a range of projects. Further, it provides a safe space for a diverse group of residents to meaningfully contribute to civic life, changing mindsets and attitudes towards their relationship with government.
A borough of over 200k residents, the problems Barking and Dagenham face are interconnected and complex. When even a minor change happens at one place within the system, the entire community can feel the effects. Given this interdependence, it is critical that the linkages between community members are strong. The Resident’s Panel provides just one way the council is strengthening those linkages, by working with residents to create the conditions in which deep relationships can form.
The panel represents a new form of engagement that is about more than just ticking a box to say residents were consulted in the process. It is about truly giving residents a voice in decision making processes so that they are heard, understood and valued. The group feels trusted and supported to use their local knowledge to determine what’s best for their community.
The panel comes from all walks of life — a social worker, a student, a retiree, and more. The local council intentionally invited a diverse group of residents who are representative of the community, and these nine residents happily responded to the call. While they all bring different backgrounds and experiences, they are united in their passion for where they live. Estelle, one of the members of the Resident’s Panel, describes why she first joined, “it’s exciting to know we can volunteer our time to give back to the community and make a real difference.”
On this Saturday, the group heard pitches for a variety of projects, including a women’s centre that supports survivors of male violence, an organization that coaches those with learning difficulties to develop independent living skills, and others. The panel asks important questions to better understand the support the groups will provide — who will they serve, how will they use the money, and what impact do they ultimately aim to achieve?
After the groups leave, the deliberations begin. The panel, brought together through this opportunity, debates serious topics, such as what type of support women who have experienced violence need. While the conversations can become quite intense, the panel is remarkably empathetic — relating to the community group, those they seek to help, and each other.
Through their conversations, it becomes clear that the people who live in the community are best placed to make key decisions that will impact the community. For example, one project sought to develop youth through music and dance programming. As the panel discussed whether or not the project should receive funding, they raised that there are already similar opportunities that youth have in Barking and Dagenham. They also know exactly where those other activities take place and determine that this new project fills a gap those other activities don’t meet.
This local knowledge is critical to helping them make funding decisions on behalf of their community. The panel lifts up the voices of their fellow residents to ensure they’re heard by the council.
This approach reverses the trend we see all too often — where decisions are made by someone far removed from the actual problem. Whether it’s a wealthy philanthropist or someone at the top of government, solutions are often designed without input from those impacted by the problem, who will ultimately have to live with the consequences.
While it makes sense to involve those closer to the problem, engaging residents in decision making can be challenging. First, governments often fail to move beyond the surface level in their engagement. A community member may provide some feedback, voice a concern or vote on a policy option, but they do not actually attain meaningful power over decisions in the public sphere. Second, once you begin the initial contact with residents, how do you sustain it over time so that it becomes ingrained within the culture of the community? How do you enable residents to feel they can serve as leaders in public problem solving?
The approach of the Resident’s Panel addresses both of these challenges by offering a substantial opportunity to a diverse group of residents. Rather than just inviting them to a one-off public meeting, the panel provides a chance for meaningful change — deciding how to allocate public dollars. This type of opportunity incentivizes the group to deeply engage, giving up their entire Saturdays for the cause.
Further, participation includes sustained engagement, with residents being able to serve on the panel for up to three rounds of pitches, allocating hundreds of thousands of dollars to projects in their community. After their three rounds are up, the council has a variety of other opportunities they can become involved with, and residents, energized by their experiences, are eager to contribute.
The Resident’s Panel serves as an excellent example of how local governments can share power with those they serve. It demonstrates that local governments, placed closest to the community, can form lasting relationships with their residents who they trust to make key decisions. Other boroughs in the UK and across the world can emulate this model to strengthen the decision making power among those living in their communities.