The 3 Cs of Resident Engagement
Consultation, Collaboration & Co-Design
I’m going to write a series of blogs exploring ‘resident engagement’ .
To begin, in this blog, I explore the difference between consultations, collaboration, and co-design. This was prompted by a negative experience of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea‘s (RBKC’s) consultation process for the proposed Trellick Tower and the Cheltenham Estate development.
The local community were committed to co-designing. Only to find we were, at best, engaged in a poorly run consultation process. This has made me realise how a failure to create a shared language and set expectations can damage relationships and destroy trust.
After exploring each of the 3 C’s, I’ll summarise the key points and offer some concluding remarks.
But let’s first put things in context.
The rise of the post-Grenfell ‘resident engagement’ promise
After the Grenfell Tower Fire, the RBKC promised to put residents at the heart of planning and regeneration. The new leader of the council, Elizabeth Campbell committing that
… the culture of this council will change. In practical terms, that means we will create a future for this borough together we you, our residents. Our councillors and senior executives will not decide this for residents, but with residents. We will rethink all our plans for regeneration in this borough. We will work with residents to create new plans, and you will vote on any results. If people vote against it, then we will go back to the drawing board together and start again.Leader of the RBKC, Cllr, Elizabeth Campbell, Acceptance Speech, 24 July 2017
These kinds of promises have been repeated across the housing sector. And we find report after report saying how critical resident engagement is.
From Dame Hackitt’s Building a Safer Future Review that concluded that
‘a cultural change is required to rebuild trust and ensure residents feel safe in their homes again. Providing reassurance, recourse and responsibility to residents is one part of a systemic overhaul designed to deliver buildings that are safe now and will be in the future.’ (Para 4.11)Dame Judith Hackiett, Building a Safer Future
To the new charter for social housing residents (The 2021 Social Housing White Paper) that sets out what residents should expect.
And the multiple failures to restore trust
But in stark contrast to these promises, we see example after example of failures to meaningfully engage with residents; to respond to their concerns and restore trust.
From the ongoing building safety crisis where leaseholders and residents are bearing life altering emotional and financial consequences of for historic building defects.
And the UK’s largest housing association, Clarion’s failure to take care of the residents it evacuated from one of its properties.
Whilst spinning its achievements in being selected as finalists in the 2021 UK Housing Awards for ‘delivering life altering impacts to residents.’
Resident Engagement: Consultation, Collaboration and Co-Design
In my professional life I do a lot of collaborative and co-design work and have experience of both the benefits and challenges of these approaches.
It was during the difficult and now acrimonious process we’re involved in with the RBKC, that I began to notice that we use the words consultation, collaboration, and co-design inter-changeably. Rather than synonyms, these terms are better viewed on a continuum. Both in terms of their demand to authentically engage with and listen to residents and in their potential to build and restore trust.
The most common form of engaging with residents and communities, consultations are intended to gather views to help improve policy and decisions. Former senior civil servant, Martin Stanley’s website has useful information on consultations, including my favourite quote on the topic:
There is nothing a government hates more than to be well-informed; for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult.John Maynard Keynes
Often a statutory requirement, they typically follow a formal process and the government has issued consultations principles. But these are not always adhered to and it is debatable how many public consultations actually lead to improved decisions and better policies.
In the context of resident engagement and restoring trust post-Grenfell, a consultation process should facilitate a resident’s ability to speak truth to power, to feel as if their voice counts and matters. Yet, in many cases, the way consultations are conducted can further damage trust.
We need to stop subscribing to the myth that a tick-box consultation process equates to engaging with local communities and residents. They can end up being little more than ‘tick-box’ exercises. Many ask didactic binary questions that suggest key decisions have already been taken. And that the consultation process is being done to fulfill a procedural or legal requirement.
Additionally, the methods used, are not conducive to meaningfully explore complex trade-offs, which can lead to resident’s feeling manipulated, misrepresented and disrespected.
The Trellick and Edenham Development
For example, in RBKC’s Trellick Tower and Edenham Development consultation, a key issue of concern to residents is the height and position of the proposed buildings. With many residents preferring denser, low-rise buildings and less outdoor space. But the consultation process did not seek views on the trade-off.
Instead, the survey asked different questions about height and community / outdoor space. And then used the (obviously) positive responses to outdoor space to justify the inclusion of higher-rise buildings. Everyone is likely to say yes to more space. But to use this as a justification for including high rise buildings without specifically asking views on the density / space trade off is, at best, poor practice. At worst it is manipulative.
To illustrate. The following are survey findings from RBKC’s second round of consultation.
And despite the following results in the 3rd round of consultations, the RBKC is pushing ahead with its plans, using the communal spaces as a justification.
We should not lose sight that the intent of consultations to lead to better policies and decisions. And given communities are the ultimate users of the places being developed, one would think their tacit knowledge and expertise would be central to good decisions.
If serious about building trust, when formal consultations are required, rather than using the usual survey-based methodologies, deliberative democracy approaches such as ‘citizen assemblies’ would be more beneficial. And these methods could help restore trust. These would move us towards the collaborative and co-design end of the spectrum of approaches.
Collaboration requires going beyond protecting individual or organisational interests and agendas. This requires a shift in mindset. And demands a depth of relationship and trust, as well as governance structures, that enable open and frank dialogues. Dialouges that successfully navigate competing tensions and agendas and create mutually beneficial solutions that are owned and supported by all parties.
I suspect many examples of ‘good resident engagement’ are, in fact, successful collaborations. Collaborative working is defined as:
‘People working jointly on an activity or project to achieve a common goal. Especially where this involves co-operation between several teams, departments and/or different organisations to achieve an agreed objective.’
The use of the word has increased exponentially over the last decade, even having an ISO framework (ISO 44001) governing the establishment of collaborative business relationships.
There are many benefits to working collaboratively. For example, a 2014 Stanford study found that people working collaboratively maintained their focus for 64% longer than those working individually and reported higher levels of engagement and success, and lower levels of fatigue. Significant research exists about how to successfully collaborate, which could easily be applied in a housing context. For example, this 2008 HBR article that gives examples of four different types of collaboration.
The Trellick and Edenham development
A collaborative approach to the Trellick and Edenham development would have required bringing all stakeholders together to openly and transparently explore agendas and interests. But a failure to do this means we are left with heresay reports about what the Mayor’s office, the planning department, Historic England and 20th Century Society say. (It’s a listed estate). If we had all engaged in open and frank discussions and understood each others’ point of view, better decisions would have been made. Decisions that would have been collectively owned by all parties and that would have increased trust.
But moving beyond an interest and agenda driven approach requires capabilities such as long-term thinking, listening, open-mindedness and emotional intelligence. These skills are, in my experience, often lacking in housing and local government. Developing these types of skills might be a good starting point.
The difference between collaboration and co-design relate to power and definition. All stakeholders need decision making power. And they must jointly define and set the project parameters.
Co-design requires starting from a blank sheet of paper, defining and aligning on the scope of work collectively.
The Trellick and Edenham development
Regarding the Trellick and Edenham development, the community organisation CoMMET believed they were in a co-design process, but they were not. As that became clear, CoMMET proposed a path toward co-design. Included here as an outstanding articulation of what co-design requires and how it can be accomplished.
Co-design is a process. A process that puts community interest and voices at the heart of a gradual, phased and considered design approach. Co-design cultivates a space where time is taken to listen to the community and really understand who, and what, they are. Listening engenders trust and listening in return.
It’s about constructing scenarios where all stakeholders understand where the other is coming from and that, ultimately, all development is a synthesis of myriad requirements and views.CoMMET Community Co-Design Defintion Paper
The CoMMET proposals were ignored by RBKC and soon after CoMMET withdrew its participation saying that the RBKC had not consulted in good faith.
Resident Engagement: A summary…
The table below summarises the differences between these approaches.
|Dictionary Definition||Seek information or advice||Work jointly on a project||Design something jointly|
|What it means||I’m going to ask your views and balance those with other stakeholders views.||We’re going to navigate our conflicting agendas and tensions & come up with mutually beneficial solutions that we wouldn’t see on our own.||We’re going to share power and start with a ‘blank sheet of paper’ to scope our design together.|
|What it means in the context of resident engagement||Get residents’ feedback on pre-determined options as one input to making decisions.||Collaborate with residents on pre-defined projects or plans, to find mutually beneficial solutions, that go beyond individual & group agendas and interests.||Co-design solutions with residents and other stakeholders. Residents must be involved in defining the project & have decision making power.|
|Structure||Typically done via surveys or meetings to get resident’s inputs on pre-determined options.||Typically, work within existing roles and structures e.g., Residents Associations||Often sharing decision making powers requires establishing new governance structures.|
Our over-relience on process driven, tick box consultation is at odds with a committment to improve engagement with residents and to restore trust. And attempting to spin consultations as collaborative co-design processes, as with the Trellick and Edenham development, further destroys relationships and increases distrust.
Personally, it is disapointing that the RBKC have not embraced collaboration and co-design. As I’m sure other local authorities and housing associations have. I hope this blog might help to create a shared language for exploring best practice and learning how to fulfil our post-Grenfell committments to residents.