Five actions every community group should take to engage with local government

We so often tend to think the role of a Council is to engage with its public, and we’re right, after all, they provide a service of public value and legislation dictates public consultation must occur regarding Long Terms Plans, Annual Plans and District Plans, to simply name a few. However, this shouldn’t be a one sided effort on the part of the local authority particularly when community organisations, whether small social service providers, sports clubs or town promotion groups, so often crave assistance with funds, facilities and support with lobbying efforts.

So the question is how can community groups best engage with their local authorities to garner the support required to really make a difference in their communities. Here are five simple considerations and actions that can be taken:

1) Take the opportunity to participate –

So many times Council’s endeavour to host a workshop, an event or a forum and simply have the usual ‘vocal few’ attend to dominate conversations. Unfortunately, personal agendas more often than not come to the forefront and the issue or intent of the gathering loses focus, momentum and the interest of the general public that the Council is trying to attract. So one of the key things you can do to build a relationship with your Council is to participate and to actively engage. Become known simply by being the level head in the room, ensure that individuals representing your group take the opportunity to introduce themselves as part of your organisation.

Often Councils will be looking for support during events, it could be in the form of promoting the day to the public or nominated volunteers from your group to be acknowledged at a civic function. Better still are those occasions that they may be needing partners on the day and providing opportunities for your group to outreach to the public - you could be connecting with your community, profiling yourself and getting new members while building a relationship with Council.

2) Understand local government decision making –

Many are often confused by the role of staff and Councillors. Decision making occurs at the ‘top table’. While a staff member can assist and guide your group with matters of sustainability and promotion in many cases, if you need funds, a rates subsidy, use of a venue at no charge, etc, these calls are most commonly made by elected members. As a public servant, staff will always uphold their duty to provide free and frank advice to Councillors, which can mean a strong relationship with a Council Officer may see your request supported and the staff member well versed to speak in favour of your community group’s approach but the final decision rests with elected members – and if they don’t know you, your group or your intent the question of credibility is often raised.

One way to become known is to approach a Councillor to sit on your board or committee, better still speak to the Mayor about nominating a Council representative (an elected member) to become an “ex officio” or Trustee. At many Councils after the results of an election cycle are known the Mayor will nominate new Councillors for various representation roles on internal and external committees - your group could be one. By simply meeting with the Mayor to discuss this opportunity you’ll already be starting to build a robust relationship as you’ll be showing trust in his or her decision making to put forward a Councillor with a good fit for your organisation.

3) Engage in the process –

In New Zealand, every Council undertakes Long Term Plans (three yearly) and Annual Plans (yearly) and depending on the given year and the issues or proposals on hand, the quantity of submissions can vary from in the 10s to the 1000s. No matter the number, staff read them all, management read them all and Councillors read them all. As you can appreciate on that rare occasion when a submission is articulate, complimentary and full of thanks for the efforts of Council, smiles arise, a deflated ego can be restored and the name of the submitter is well regarded (and most importantly remembered on occasion). So even if your group has nothing to say regarding a particular issue in the plan being consulted on, acknowledging the effort, passion and intent of the people involved in the process is a very wise move.

The truth is if you look hard enough you’ll always find something to compliment, even if it is a small increase in funding for a group you partner with or additional events planned for small neighbourhoods not often celebrated in your community.

It’s understood many people don’t like public speaking but when ‘engaging in the process’ you’ll find opportunities will arise to be heard and each one should be taken whenever possible. A submission ‘hearing’ means you have the ear of all elected members at one time – which can save a lot of time and energy when it comes to building your profile and relationship with Council as a whole.

4) Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!

It is essential to ensure your frequency of communication is maintained. If your organisation publishes a newsletter make sure it is sent to all elected members and relevant staff. Press releases should also be distributed as finding out something second hand or worst still in the local paper is not helpful to building trust when attempting to develop a partnership.

One thing to remember is that your community group will have an in depth understanding of your members or clients – this is a significant asset and one that Council will see value in… so use it. If you provide a social service think about the trends you are finding, are the numbers of clients coming in for budget support or food parcels increasing exponentially. If you are a sports club struggling to find volunteers or a business association finding retailers closing their doors – they are all trends that will inform decision making regarding where funding and resources should be put and these patterns provide extremely valuable knowledge to Council. Often in a small community, you are the only group that can provide this type of detail and share a true understanding of local issues.

5) Acknowledge and follow through

So let’s say all goes well, you have a new found relationship with your local Council, you’ve received a grant and you have a Council representative join your committee, now’s the time to continue to strengthen and build robustness in your relationship.

Whenever possible showcase your connection with Council, like any organisation they want to be acknowledged so treat them as you would any other sponsor. Allow your Mayor or Council rep to open an event or host a morning tea where clients or members can introduce themselves.

One thing that will damage a partnership (beyond repair in many situations) is a lack of trust – so build this. If you have accountability requirements that come with grant funding follow it to the letter, send in the receipts, the bank records and the evaluation report. If circumstances have changed and you want to alter what was agreed, pick up the phone, record agreements in an email and ensure your whole committee or board is on the same page.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the five key actions listed above require an investment of time so make sure to pick and choose what you can do and do it well, share these tasks among committee members whose skills sets are most suitable. Coming up with a plan to engage with Council should be a strategy adopted and valued by all community groups – big or small. Remember local government can have a significant impact on your activities and you too have a large amount to offer your community’s decision makers.

Amanda HemaComment