How to get councillors more involved in coproduction

A luminous sign is a good start but it might take just little more…

Getting councillors more involved in coproduction, when it comes right down to it, means having the right conversations in the right way. But how to do it? If you want some ideas, read on…

This post is a summary of some of the ideas from a workshop I ran at ‘All in this together — a celebration of coproduction in Wales’. Big thanks to everyone who took part and helped me to make this in what was a very hot room on a very hot day!

I’ve written this professionals in mind but, if you are a councillor, hopefully it will be useful for you also. And please forgive my sweeping generalisations — I mean well.

Why this matters

I’ve written before about why we need to get councillors more involved in coproduction so I won’t dwell on it too much here. The starting point is that, while councillors have much to give, they are often the last to be involved, or worse, they are not involved at all.

Councillors have influence and they have skills and, uniquely, they operate on both the professional and public side of coproduction.

More than this, councillors want to make a difference and solve problems and they are likely to find getting involved rewarding as many professionals do. And, if coproduction is about democracy and sharing power, then even more reason for councillors to have a role.

So, there are three main parts to the conversation with councillors; making contact, making sense together and finding the right fit.

Making contact

First and foremost, councillors are people, all different, all unique.

Councillors have different roles, mindsets, priorities, strengths and support needs. The likelihood is that they will also be experiencing a number of real pressures, from the council, from their party and from the community, that simply aren’t visible from the outside (by the way, for something on the political pressures see here).

Talking to councillors, therefore, means making a personal connection — taking time to understand each other and looking for common ground. As Atticus Finch puts it so well in To Kill A Mockingbird, you never really understand a person until you see things from their point of view.

This may sound obvious, but often councillors are treated as a homogeneous group who cannot be contacted without going through the ‘proper channels’. In the absence of a specific direction otherwise, why not just start a conversation? ‘Proceed until apprehended’ was the phrase a workshop participant used. Just be brave.

The councillors to contact first are those relevant to whichever activity you are involved in. So, the Cabinet member, committee chair or scrutiny chair with responsibility for that area. Also the ward member(s) representing any affected communities.

As one workshop participant suggested, one way to find the relevant councillor is to search for the relevant council reports online — these will often include councillor names.

It’s also worth seeking out the keen beans. Chances are there will be one or two councillors who really get what you are doing and will want to get involved, even if they are not directly responsible. Look for the open doors to push open, as someone in the workshop said. You can look for clues on the council website where councillors will usually have profile pages, social media, party websites and in election info.

Making sense of coproduction

To many councillors, coproduction sounds like just another buzz-word and often they can be the last to hear about any developments taking place.

If we are serious about co-production (and we are!) then councillors should be part of the conversation from the start — part of deciding what it means locally and how things should be run.

We wouldn’t expect the public to be passive recipients of coproduction at the end of the process, so why should be expect councillors to be?

Two further points here.

First, it’s helpful for councillors to be aware of the legal and policy context. Councillors will already be fully aware of financial issues but there is plenty more in the case for coproduction to be aware of.

Second, it’s useful to explore with councillors what they do already. We talked in the workshop about how, when working in their communities, councillors are natural coproducers — getting the public involved in solving problems — acting as a bridge between public and professionals. It’s coproduction even if it hasn't been labelled that way.

It’s also worth noting that councillors pay attention to what their constituents want. They got elected in the first place to make a difference in their communities, to represent their communities and of course they want to get re-elected. When councillors see that coproduction activity matters to the people in their areas, that can also make a difference.

In the workshop, the approach of making sense of coproduction with councillors from the top and the bottom was described rather neatly as ‘inspiring from both ends’.

Remember, it’s not just about what councillors can do for coproduction but what coproduction can do for them. Find out what the pressing concerns are and see if coproduction can provide a solution. The more relevant and practical we can make it, the more likely we are to make a positive connection.

Finding the right fit

Getting councillors more involved in coproduction means finding the the right role.

In the workshop we talked about the different things that councillors might do in a coproduction initiative, some hands on, some more strategic.

  • Community organiser — councillors are very well connected in their communities, and they know who’s who.
  • Advocate — making the case behind closed doors at the council or in public, in the press for example
  • Watchdog — scrutiny councillors can help to ensure that initiatives run as they should. They can also ask questions about the wider support in place and hold decision makers to account
  • Sponsor — acting a bridge between professionals and public, councillors are uniquely placed to provide leadership to all sides of the coproduction spectrum

The key thing here is to have something specific in mind. Councillors are busy people and rarely just ‘looking for something to do’. As with anything else, making a commitment is a lot easier if we know what we are being asked to do and exactly what it will involve.

Finally a massive thanks to Noreen and the rest of the Co-production Network for Wales team for inviting me to their fantastic event. It really was a wonderfully run and thoroughly enjoyable day.

By the way, if you are in Wales and into coproduction you should definitely join the network. Details on their website here.

Photo credits: @copronetwales