Citizen change: an engaging idea to empower people and their communities

6 Mar 23

Connecting communities and government brings trust and outcomes everyone has helped create. What’s not to like?

When looking through the lens of major infrastructure, it pays – to borrow a phrase from James Joyce – to look through both ends of the telescope. Whether through the policy prism of national and local industrial strategy, its replacement in ‘levelling up’ or what perhaps might follow after the next general election with Labour’s vision of ‘New Britain’, the mega-highways scheme signed off between, say, Kent County Council and the Department for Transport in Marsham Street, Westminster, has to tangibly benefit the resident of Marsham Street, Maidstone.

There has to be a connection from the singing of a jumbo-sized contract for a vital new transport connection or energy array to the lived experience of communities and residents.

At Localis, we have consistently made this argument in our analyses on local economic growth, in studies like Local Delivery, which looks into the community resilience afforded by social infrastructure, and True Value, which investigates the maximisation of social value at the level of place.

Starting with place

The levelling up agenda itself has taken a stand on place patriotism, and one of its metrics – to be enshrined in law – is ‘pride in place’. As good localists who believe in putting place at the heart of policymaking, this is something on the surface that we felt should be investigated.

Beyond digital, economic, physical, what would the inherent power of citizen change look like? Can we harness the minds and will of our citizenry as a vital underlying infrastructure in its own right?

In this, I have drawn inspiration from Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda. He argues that since the dawn of the modern age, the key to human happiness has been predicated in transforming our external world, our natural environment or our social systems. And this has been the primary focus. In the process, little thought has been devoted to transforming the way we live our lives.

Naturally there are, and have been, many kinds of revolutions – political, economic, industrial, scientific and artistic; revolutions in the distribution of goods and services, in communications, and countless other spheres, each significant in its own way, and sometimes necessary. But, whatever changes are made, if the people implementing them are selfish and lack compassion, they won’t improve the world. This principle of inner or citizen change is summarised by Ikeda: “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”

This is all good, well-meaning theorising. But how might we tap into the latent power of citizen-driven change? When we take this to the local authority level, we find attitude is all in creating the right environment for strong citizen engagement as a precursor to action. This was a main finding of Localis’ deep dive into the emerging good practice of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea in our study The Connected Society. Indeed, the author G K Chesterton – one of the borough’s more notable and original localists (see The Napoleon of Notting Hill) – once noted that: “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

When it comes to the everyday functions of local authorities and how we interact with them – and them with us as residents or communities – it is remarkably easy to overlook the importance of participation, trust and two-way communication.

The future is local

As a concept, localism has the potential to deliver real democratic accountability and public good, but only if done in a way that delivers real power to people. To develop deeper connections between the local state and citizens is not necessarily a matter of institutional formality. It is a question of substance, and concerns the relations between the functions of a local authority – such as the services provided – and the citizens they are responsible for.

Neither the local state nor civil society and community should be seen as acting in isolation. Local authorities derive their legitimacy through their interaction with citizens and an organised and active civil society. Furthermore, a capable local authority can use these interactions to assess the needs of citizens that can then go on to inform technical or policy solutions that deliver better and more responsive public services and create an improved public realm and local environment.

How citizens and communities identify with their local area is notoriously tricky to grasp. In the immediate policy context, the government’s Levelling Up white paper has used the rhetoric of ‘pride in place’ – a helpful springboard.

Place matters

As a means of improving delivery in a way that respects place-identity, local engagement is an outcome that can arise from consultation processes or other interaction between a council and its community, such as participation and the provision of information. Engagement itself is achieved when the community is and feels part of the overall governance of that community. Councils have an important role in building stronger communities, and engaging communities is a key way of doing so.

The experience of Covid-19-induced lockdowns served as a stress test without parallel for our social infrastructure and fabric. We truly learned the limits and extent of the central state’s ability to command and control from Whitehall and the inner-resilience and capacity of the local and hyperlocal to persevere and intuitively innovate on the ground – in many cases, without instructions or funding.

For central government, the idea of local economic generation is affixed to the notion of ‘pride in place’. Under objective three of the government’s Levelling Up white paper, there is the goal of restoring ‘a sense of community, local pride and belonging’. Under this objective, the paper speaks of ‘pride in place’, consisting of policies to support regeneration, communities, green space and cultural activity.

Street level

The Connected Society, therefore, represents an early attempt to marry an understanding of levelling-up theory with the practice of community-led placemaking on the streets, the alfresco dining areas, in the pocket parks and among the diverse communities of Kensington & Chelsea.

It is to be hoped that there is much in this policy toolkit that can be learned and adapted to in different places and circumstances – including the transition to net zero. For without doubt, this makes the need to illuminate the path to individual agency even more crucial.

The initial fears that decarbonisation of the economy might catalyse a populist pushback from the likes of Reform UK party leader Richard Tice as a new strand of the culture wars – a policy battlefield on which to hold a Brexit-style referendum – have not been realised.

However, as Bristol mayor Marvin Rees has put it to me, we risk losing the dressing room if we are unable to bring our communities along on the journey for tangible good things like new jobs or skills that a green economy should deliver.

Looking at this through fresh eyes, citizen change for climate change will force us to go even deeper in engaging and empowering individuals to take responsibility for their communities. In urging us to undergo an inner reformation, American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson declared: “Not he is great who can alter matter, but he who can alter my state of mind.”

The concept of individual agency, tapping into compassionate action based on wider concern, is something we have sought to incorporate in our own thinking on local clean growth and the route to net zero. In our study Mapping A Route To Local Clean Growth – Clearing The Path To Net Zero, we reported that meaningful community engagement will be a vital first step in enacting cultural and behavioural change in residents.

However, for this to have any real impact, it will be vital that engagement isn’t done in a superficial manner or as a tick-box exercise. If a move to a goal such as sustainable and active travel is the overarching objective, the importance of this needs to be effectively communicated to residents. At the same time, the concerns of residents need to be heard and they must feel that they are being taken along on the journey. Clear communication and concise messaging is a key ingredient to meaningful engagement.

Creating the steps to get to net zero and demonstrating the community’s role in the process is of utmost importance. Breaking the journey down and explaining how each project and development in the local area will contribute to the transition will help bring the public on board, as well as giving an understanding of their priorities.


Tailored messaging is also crucial in demonstrating the benefits of net-zero projects in a way that is relatable to the community. Regarding active travel, communicating the wider health advantages of developing less-car-reliant neighbourhoods – such as cleaner air and increased green space – will be a big part of increasing their appeal.

There are a number of local authorities already leading the way on meaningful engagement. One is Oxford City Council, which held the UK’s first citizens’ assembly on climate change in September 2019. It consisted of 50 randomly selected residents of the city, representative of its demographics. A key focus was on how the city should reduce emissions from transport and better enable active travel across Oxford. However, the key to its success has been in the council taking forward recommendations advanced by citizens and implementing them in its economic strategy and its plans for climate change and sustainable travel. This has given a sense that residents are active stakeholders in the future of their place and has helped facilitate behavioural change.

Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Council used extensive public engagement when developing its local cycling and walking infrastructure plan as a way of encouraging increased active travel. It collected over 1,800 responses to a tailored survey. The end result has been a list of prioritised infrastructure schemes that the council, alongside partners at the highways authority, is now working to progress and deliver.

Prompt action

Another form of encouraging behavioural and cultural change is through ‘nudging’. This refers to the tweaking of the decision-making environment to encourage certain behaviours over others. Advantages include potential savings for the local authority by preventing long-term adversities as well as improving quality of life for people who are making positive decisions for themselves.

The Smarter Travel Sutton initiative is an early example of local policy that helped change travel behaviours. Run in the latter half of the 2000s, it used a mix of marketing and travel planning to reduce car usage in the borough. The ‘nudges’ that were employed to encourage cycling included interventions such as placing cycle stands in car parks and enacting workplace travel plans for council staff that gave them an incentive to walk or cycle to work twice a week. A key result was a 75% increase in cycle traffic.

Can we take this thinking further? In our latest study, Right Place, Right Time – Five Points To Square The Net Zero Circle, to be published in 2023, Localis will be suggesting that – in light of the challenging circumstances communities are currently facing, and the impact this may have on their capacity to engage – local authorities could recruit net zero champions. These citizen representatives would help engage residents on issues relating to a local and just transition in a manner reflective of their place context.

Net zero champions could act as conduits to disseminate targeted and user-friendly information for residents produced by the local authority and local state partners. These champions could also deepen engagement by feeding back sentiments and concerns to the local authority, which can then devise shorter-term policies to address them.

“You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality”

Citizen-driven change should be viewed as a parallel subset of social infrastructure. It is the human-centred force that makes the interdependencies and economic case for infrastructure provision or repair stack up. Ultimately, if we are not engaging with and empowering individual residents and communities to understand the reasons why physical infrastructure, affecting and shaping their daily lives, is being built or repurposed, we’re more than missing a trick. We’re missing the very purpose of value-creating inclusive growth – creating a capable, resilient, healthy and prosperous society.

Image credit | Paddy-Mills

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