Inspiring Communities’ consultancy arm, Powerdigm, has recently completed a very cool Think Piece – Powering Up Communities to Deliver Local Wellbeing. I wanted to share some insights I gained while working on it.

In preparation of its next ten-year plan, Western Bay of Plenty District Council wanted a better understanding of the local structures and approaches that will support communities trying to improve their own wellbeing. Rather than focus on overseas knowledge, they asked us to find out what can be learnt from the many and varied community experiences across Aotearoa. Producing case studies on six remarkable locally-led initiatives was both a joy and a privilege.

I’m acutely aware of the need for Aotearoa to tell and share more of its own locally-led stories. We have much to celebrate and learn from what’s happening and working well right here in our own back yard. Inspiring Communities really do inspire other communities! 

I was reminded of this at our recent Neighbours Aotearoa street gathering when a neighbour told us how a visiting friend loved the Little Library in our street so much that he went home and built one for his street. A small yet significant example of impactful change.

While there’s good stuff happening everywhere, generally outside of the media spotlight, there’s also a challenge to do better – and increasingly now, to do better with less. However, it’s not all about money – it’s about how we do what we do and with who.

While our Powering Up Communities Think Piece focused on what communities need to have in place to be more effective partners, for and alongside Councils – it can’t all be about what communities are responsible for.

Councils need to be ready to work and partner with communities, just as much as communities need to be ready to work and partner with Councils. Relationships are a two-way street, this means the expectations for the behaviours and ways of working apply to both parties. It also means that individuals within Councils can’t just focus on holding strong external relationships, they must also pay attention to their internal operations so that there is a shared organisational understanding and commitment to:

  • sharing power
  • being flexible
  • adding value – not burden
  • appropriate and longer term resourcing
  • enabling – not being a gatekeeper for wider Council relationships; and
  • supporting greater self-determination for local hapū, iwi and community partners. 

Funding to ‘enable local outcomes’ is all very well but who is determining the outcomes – Council or communities? Are arrangements focused on Council defined outcomes or those prioritised by community organisations themselves? Ideally, it will be a little of both – yet too often Council priorities drive what gets funded, and this is done under the guise of working in partnership.

The requirement for Councils to rebuild trust with local communities was one of the key findings in last year’s Future of Local Government Review. This is a huge job – turning the Titanic in large public sector organisations is no easy task. And it’s something that neither Councils nor communities can do on their own – it takes two to tango. 

I’d also argue that if institutions aren’t collaborating well internally, there’s little hope of effective collaboration with their communities. Paying more attention to enabling quality relationships internally as well as externally is time consuming but vital.

In my experience, the best place to start is with what’s right in front of you – by demonstrating what it looks like to hold an authentic relationship. For me that often means giving before receiving (do for others first), doing what you say you’ll do (deliver!)  and going the extra mile so others can visibly see, feel, and experience what working differently together can look like. Within that, we need to be honest and upfront about constraints, as they don’t mysteriously disappear. Breaking off small bits of the mythical elephant rather than expecting or promising too much all at once is sage advice.

After a decade or more at the helm of Inspiring Communities I’ve decided that it’s time to make a change. Rather than co-lead the organisation, I want to spend more time working with Councils, communities and other partners who are wanting to make collaborative community-led change work well. I’m not going far, I’m keen to keep working as part of the Powerdigm network and look forward to having more time to help people and places do better together.

Megan Courtney, CLD Coordination and Practice Lead

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