Community cohesion and participation – a practical framework

The aim of this framework is to provide practical guidance for anyone seeking to work with their local communities towards creating greater community cohesion. It builds on the findings of Involve’s research into the relationship between local-level public participation and community cohesion.

Public participation is only part of the answer to building and sustaining cohesive communities; numerous different factors contribute to shaping social relationships, and the approaches used should always reflect the character and needs of the community in question. This guidance focuses primarily on the relationship between public participation and community cohesion and it is on this that the practical framework is focused

The framework is built on the assumption that when public participation initiatives are carried out well they can offer many different kinds of benefits to individuals, local communities and public bodies, some of which are directly relevant to the community cohesion agenda. Hence, although no amount of good-quality public participation activities will guarantee the development of community cohesion, it is imperative that all forums for participation and empowerment seek to offer the best possible experiences for the participants as well as maximum benefit for the wider community.

At the core of these principles is the importance of keeping a flexible approach to community cohesion and public participation activities, in order to ensure that the methods used are suited to the local context.

The framework is divided into three sections:

  1. Understanding and tapping into local communities, which looks at the need for a flexible approach to community cohesion and public participation that takes into account the specific character and capacities of a local community.
  2. Joining up strategy and delivery, which looks at the need for practising a holistic approach to community cohesion, with strategic officers and service providers working together with third sector organisations and community members for best results.
  3. Public participation for common cause – principles of practice, which lists practical guidelines for those who deliver local level public participation activities.

Understanding and tapping into local communities

Understanding the local community

Why it matters: Repeatedly participants in this research emphasised the need for those working to support community cohesion to understand the communities they are working with and ensure that the approaches they use are suitable to the context and the people involved. There is no “magic bullet” that can create or sustain community cohesion. A range of factors contribute to shaping social relationships, and what works in one place may not be suitable elsewhere. Hence in order to build strong communities it will always be necessary to adopt a flexible and multi-pronged approach, underpinned by an in-depth understanding of the characteristics and needs of the communities in question.

What it means in practice:

  • Chart who lives in the area to ensure that no group is inadvertently excluded from the activities that are being planned. Who takes part in public life locally? Who does not? Whose perspectives on life in the area are missing?
  • Build community feedback into policy cycles. Create opportunities to consult on policy and enable the public to plan for their community. What do they like or dislike about the area in which they live? What would they like to change? What do they define as a strong community and what help do they need to get there?
  • Ensure that members from all levels of the local authority, both elected representatives and officers, are directly involved in shared discussions and activities with the local communities for which they are responsible

Tapping into existing networks

Why it matters: Formal opportunities for public participation are only part of the story in nurturing community cohesion. Often, it is the informal relationships and networks within a local area that determine how residents feel about their community and their neighbours. Therefore, rather than adding additional layers of participation or interaction processes into local civic life, local authorities should seek to map and work with these existing social networks, as well as to provide links, forums and support to those who do not belong to any such informal networks. 

What it means in practice:

  • Map the informal and formal networks that exist in the area, such as faith groups, parent groups, sports clubs, community activists or residents’ and tenants’ associations. Who are involved in these groups and networks? Who is not involved? Are there overlaps and interactions between them? What can be done to support more interactions between different groups and networks?
  • Map the informal and formal activities in the area. What initiatives are already taking place to bring about positive change in the locality? Can the local authority work with and support these in any way?
  • Identify the community catalysts. Who is instrumental in bringing people together? How can the experiences, knowledge and networks of those individuals be tapped into? This might simply be a case of spending time talking to individuals in the area and finding out who they think plays such a role in their communities.
  • Go to where people are rather than expect people to come to you. Identify where in the community people are already interacting with each other. Whether in cafés, the post office, schools, faith centres or the barber shop, consider how those social hubs can be used as points of contact for public bodies seeking to work with local residents, or as venues to bring people in the community together. Consider what support these public spaces may benefit from to be of better use to the local community.

 Learning from informal relationships

Why it matters: Participants in this research highlighted the importance of spontaneous and relaxed interaction in shaping social relationships. They contrasted the relaxed feel of informal social interactions with the more formal and time-restricted nature of local authority initiatives. It was repeatedly argued that public agencies should consider what it is that motivates people to get involved and stay involved in informal community activities, and seek to bring those factors into their own community cohesion work.

What it means in practice:

  • Bring people together around a common cause is more likely to generate enthusiasm and engagement than initiatives centred around issues identified as a priority by the local authority, or abstract debates to identify shared values and visions. Find out what people care about or want to change in their local community and use that as a starting point for shared activities.
  • Provide time for relationships to develop is crucial; understanding and trust do not emerge overnight. Remember that the type and purpose of interactions between people is often of less importance than the time they spend together. Providing opportunities for sustained and meaningful interactions between people is therefore key to promoting more positive relationships in local communities.
  • Recognise that bringing an element of fun into cohesion-building activities can make a real difference. Encouraging people to come together around food, games, sport and celebrations can help build bridges between groups, create a sense of unity in the local area and help overcome prejudice and tension in the community. Building public participation exercises into such activities can provide access to people who would not attend formal council activities.

Targeted approaches

Why it matters: Both within and between communities, inequalities exist. Whether they take a structural or material form, in terms of income, housing and quality of public services, or whether they relate to differences in skills, knowledge or levels of empowerment, there is no doubt that social inequalities are at the root of many of the divisions and much of the tension that underlie Britain’s splintered communities. Targeted approaches seek to develop the confidence, skills and awareness of particular groups to participate in public life, to enable them to overcome the barriers to involvement that can perpetuate inequalities. 

What it means in practice:

  • Recognise those groups whose voices are not currently being heard in decision making and actively seek to support their involvement. Young people, new arrivals and even commuters unable to attend events during the day are just a few examples of those who may be at risk from exclusion.
  • Connect these activities with other policy concerns to ensure best use is made of resources. Targeted approaches can be particularly helpful for addressing anti-social behaviour, inter-group tension and political disengagement.
  • Chart a clear journey between targeted activities for under-represented groups and universal and open activities which all residents can access, in order to not exacerbate existing divides and tensions.
  • Ensure all residents are told about the activities that are taking place and their purpose, to ensure that the institution in charge is perceived to be acting fairly.

Joining up strategy and delivery

Strategic and delivery officials working together

Why it matters: This research identified a gap between the rhetoric that surrounds community cohesion strategies and the working reality of those who deliver these policies on the ground. Often, those who are charged with supporting community cohesion are not the same people who deliver services or public participation activities, and no connection is made between the different strands of work. Many participants saw these divisions between rhetoric, practice and service delivery as stumbling blocks to progress. There were repeated calls for a more joined-up approach to community cohesion, with cohesion objectives running as a cross-cutting theme through the work of local authorities.

What it means in practice:

  • Build a common understanding of what community cohesion means that is shared across all stakeholders. Involve the local community and local third sector organisations, as well as those responsible in senior and frontline governance positions, in creating a user-friendly definition of what a strong community means to them and how they think it should be achieved.
  • Create locally specific community cohesion indicators around this shared definition. In essence, consider how to assess progress in the local context objectively.
  • Build community cohesion objectives into equality impact assessment frameworks, to ensure that all local authority activities are measured in terms of their impact on community cohesion.

Taking an action-focused approach

Why it matters: Participants in the research were clear that enough time has been spent researching and building the rhetoric around community cohesion without really finding out what is happening on the ground. There were repeated calls for local authorities to spend less time building their community cohesion strategies and instead to put more effort into their actual work in communities, building a practical knowledge base and sharing their experiences with other areas.

What it means in practice: The balance of strategic vs hands-on work will differ between localities, as will the nature of the practical work that takes place. Among the suggestions identified in this research were:

  • Involve service providers, public participation practitioners and community development workers in devising a community cohesion strategy with a practical focus. Ensure that every element of the strategy has a practical application, and that those who will be delivering it are clear about what is being asked of them.
  • Recognise that the most comprehensive answers to the questions and problems in community cohesion and beyond, will use the collective wisdom and experiences of everyone involved – both deliverers of services and users of services.
  • Consider the impact that local public services have on community cohesion and the potential for user and resident participation to make local services more responsive to local needs. Remember that public participation in service delivery can also help the local community better understand how services are prioritised and distributed, thus improving perceptions of fairness and improving trust in local authorities.
  • Encourage innovation when trying new approaches to public participation and community cohesion.

Maintaining a long-term perspective

Why it matters: Community cohesion is a process, not an outcome that can be achieved overnight. As such it does not fit neatly within the policy cycles and time-bound funding streams of local and national government. This is the source of much frustration among people working directly with communities, who often see funding cut short just as they are beginning to see the results. As a consequence, participants in this study repeatedly called for a more long-term perspective on community cohesion by funders and policy makers.

What it means in practice:

  • Recognise that community cohesion and integration are not short-term targets but ongoing processes that will need to form an integral part of the long-term work of local authorities.
  • Ensure that this long-term perspective is reflected in how funding is distributed. Short-term funding that ends just as it begins to make a difference risks doing more harm than good, by causing disillusionment among the very people whose enthusiasm and hard work the community cohesion agenda relies on.
  • Consider options such as interim reviews for all funding. For instance, undertaking a four-year project, with two years funding followed by a comprehensive review and then another two years of funding. At the end of the project there will be a significant amount of learning that can be rolled out to other projects and areas.

Public participation for common cause – practical principles

The method is only part of the story 

Why it matters: As public participation is becoming an increasingly common feature of local decision making and service design, officials often find themselves under pressure to engage with local residents within tight timeframes and limited budgets. As a result, it is not uncommon for tried and tested methods of participation to be recycled repeatedly, without consideration of how they suit the situation or the local circumstances. However, it is important to remember that the participation method is only part of the story. If a public participation activity does not have a clear purpose or is done badly, it is likely to be a waste of time for both the institution and the participants involved. Likewise, activities carried out without commitment to take the findings on board are meaningless, as are activities that are geared towards a predetermined outcome.

What it means in practice: The following formula summarises the key considerations that need to be taken into account when planning a public participation activity:

purpose + context + people + method = outcome

  • purpose – being clear about what the public participation activity seeks to achieve
  • context – paying attention to the needs and character of the community in question
  • people – considering who should be involved, what their needs are, and what support or incentives may help them take part
  • method – choosing a method of participation that fits the purpose, context and people.

Purpose – setting clear objectives

Why it matters: Those organising public participation activities must have clear objectives, which will help ensure that the activities stay focused and that the expectations of those involved are managed. Being clear about the objectives at the outset also makes it easier to evaluate the impact of the exercise once it is finished.

Failing to set clear objectives risks causing misunderstandings and tension among those involved, can lead to time and resources being wasted, and may cause a loss of credibility if the participation activity is seen as flawed or not delivering.

What it means in practice: Setting clear objectives means finding agreement on:

  • the desired outcomes – the results or impacts of the participation exercise, how it is going to make a difference (e.g. inform a decision, change how a public service is run, or improve relations between participants)
  • what the outputs will be – the activities and items that make the outcome happen (e.g. meetings, workshops, information posters, reports).

It is also useful to make a distinction between the primary objective (the reason the activity is happening in the first place) and any additional objectives (added bonuses). For example, the primary objective of involving residents in the regeneration of their housing estate may be to ensure that the plans put in place are informed by residents’ needs, although the secondary objective may be to improve relations between residents. Separating primary from secondary objectives helps keep the participation process focused and also makes it easier to foresee and justify any trade-offs that need to be made between objectives.

There are good and bad objectives. A good objective is focused, with clearly defined outputs and outcomes. It is achievable within the budget, timeframe and other resources available. A bad objective is poorly defined, unrealistic given the resources available, or open to conflicting interpretations.

Bring people together around issues that connect them

Why it matters: although many official documents on community cohesion have recommended that local communities should come together to debate their shared values and visions for the future, this research revealed little support for such approaches. Research participants argued, in tune with other studies on the subject, that a more effective way of building understanding and positive social relationships is to bring people together to work on issues that affect their day-to-day lives.

What it means in practice:

  • Talk to people in the community to find out what their priorities and concerns are, and arrange participation activities around issues that people feel motivated by. This can be done through surveys, citizens’ panels, prioritisation exercises at community events, speaking to tenants’ and residents’ organisations or by using resources such as
  • Agree clear and tangible targets with the community, in order to promote a common understanding of what is going to happen next and a shared sense of responsibility towards the issue at hand. This also helps demonstrate willingness and openness on the part of the local authority, and ensures that the community can hold the authority accountable for what happens next.

Context – adapting to local circumstances

Why it matters: Each community is different, and what works in one place will be inappropriate elsewhere. Hence, when considering what participation approach to use or which residents to involve, it is important to understand the needs of the community in question, but also to be aware of the social, organisational and political context.

What it means in practice: Consider the following three factors:

  • Audience – who will be affected by the outcomes of the participation activity? This could be the residents, the service provider, service users or other stakeholders. What are the interests and commitments of those people in relation to the project? How will their needs be met?
  • History – what is the history of the area, the service or the issue that is being addressed? Has either of these been the subject of debate, tension or controversy in the community? If so, how might this affect people’s attitudes to any proposed public participation activity? How will negative attitudes be mitigated?
  • Other activities – what other initiatives, formal or informal, have addressed the same issues, locality or service? What can be learnt from them? Who knows about them? What will be done to ensure that efforts are not duplicated?
  • Also see the section above on understanding the local community.

Listen and learn

Why it matters: There is no point in running a public participation activity if the institution in charge is not genuinely prepared to learn from the findings of the activity. There was widespread agreement among the participants of this research that public participation activities are most likely to have a positive impact on relationships between participants and between participants and public bodies if the institution running the exercise is genuinely open to listen to and learn from the public participants. Being willing to listen and learn matters because it:

  • ensures that the institution learns from the experience of those who are affected by its decisions and services
  • shows that the participants’ time and views are valued
  • improves credibility of the participation activity and of the organisation running the activity
  • helps build trust in public institutions.

What it means in practice:

  • Give honest responses to participants’ views and queries.
  • Take on board any criticisms that arise, and be seen to do so.
  • Do not allow preconceptions about certain individuals or groups to influence how to respond to their contribution.
  • Ensure that the outcomes are visible, in other words, that participants and the wider community are informed of how the participation activity has made a difference.

Good communications and visible results

Why it matters: Good communications are a vital part of any public participation exercise. Keeping participants informed about the purpose and timeframes of the activity, and giving them feedback after it is finished, is necessary to ensure that:

  • expectations are managed: participants and partners are aware of the objectives and what is expected of them
  • participants feel that their contribution is valued
  • participants and the wider community know how their input has made a difference and understand why certain things have or have not been taken forward.

What it means in practice:

  • Inform participants and, if relevant, the wider community about what is going to happen, what the objectives are, and any changes in plans.
  • Be open about what is and is not possible to achieve, and give a full explanation when an idea cannot be taken forward.
  • Keep websites and other information sources up to date.
  • Give participants the opportunity to read and comment on project reports and evaluation reports, if appropriate.
  • Provide translated materials where necessary and possible.
  • Give feedback to participants, partners and the wider community about what happens after the activity is finished. Although it is not always possible to give direct feedback to all participants, there are always ways to make the information available to those who want it, for example by updating a web page, sending a mass email or posting information in public places.

Supporting participants to take part

Why it matters: Motivating and enabling people in the local community to get involved and stay involved in participation activities can be a challenge. Some people are simply not interested in taking part. Some are prevented from doing so because they cannot access the activities or through lack of time. Others may not feel confident about their ability to contribute, due to a perceived lack of knowledge about the issue at hand, or because they lack the necessary literacy, language or other skills to take part. It is therefore imperative that the team in charge of running the participation activity offers support to help the participants to access and fully engage with the exercise.

What it means in practice: There are three types of support that need to be considered:

  • support to help people engage in the participation activity on an equal footing (e.g. information about the subject, skills training, targeted approaches and empowerment training)
  • logistical support to help people who want to take part do so (e.g. travel expenses, translators, income remuneration, childcare provision)
  • incentives to encourage people to take part (e.g. food, games, financial incentives, vouchers).

These five questions can help identify the type of support that participants may require:

  • Are there gaps in knowledge, skill or experience between the different participants? If so, how will the different groups be supported to ensure that their voices are heard on an equal footing?
  • Are there cultural factors that should be taken into account? For instance, should there be separate meetings for men and women? Will different groups have conflicting expectations of why the activity is happening and how it should be run?
  • Are there language barriers?
  • What’s in it for the participants? Is it realistic to expect people to just show up? What is being done to make people understand that taking part in the activity is worthwhile? And what is done to make it engaging for them to do so?
  • Is it appropriate to incentivise people to take part, such as by building food, games, sport or festivities into the process, or offering money or vouchers (e.g. mobile phone top-up, cinema vouchers, vouchers from a shop chain)?

Ensuring diversity of voices

Why it matters: Public participation is becoming an increasingly important element of local government decision making and service provision. As individual service users and residents are called on to help make decisions that affect the wider community, it is becoming more and more important to ensure that the processes by which they are involved are built on principles of equality, inclusion and accountability, to make sure that no individual or group are excluded on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, gender, disability or age. This is also a legal requirement, as set out in the government’s equality and discrimination act.

This does not mean that all participation activities should be statistically representative. In local government public participation, participants are often recruited on the basis of their interest or stake in an issue or service. And, in the context of promoting integration and cohesion, it may be necessary to target specific groups rather than seek a cross-representation of the local community. The important thing is therefore not to seek statistical representation at all costs, but rather to be able to justify how participants have been selected and to ensure that no individual or group is excluded on unwarranted grounds.

What it means in practice:

  • Ensure equal access by providing logistical support (e.g. translators/translated versions of information materials, disability access, separate meetings for men and women, childcare, income remuneration).
  • Strive to include a representative cross-section of the local population or the relevant user group when possible and appropriate, and justify the recruitment criteria when the sample excludes certain groups or is not representative of the local population or user group.
  • Identify which groups or individuals are less able or likely to take part, and make special efforts to include those people.

Capturing and sharing learning to improve practice 

Why it matters: There are numerous interesting and promising participation activities taking place both by local authorities and in the community and voluntary sector, many of which are explicitly linked to the cohesion agenda. The problem, therefore, is not a lack of activities or examples to learn from, but rather a lack of access to those examples and a lack of opportunities to share experiences.

In the end, the ability of a public participation activity to have an impact beyond the individuals involved depends on effective dissemination of the findings and other learning. Each participation process involves two kinds of learning that could benefit from wider dissemination:

  • learning about participants’ views and how they have made a difference – to be disseminated to participants, the wider community, service providers, strategic officials, stakeholder groups and other interested parties as appropriate
  • learning to improve future public participation or community cohesion work – to be disseminated to other teams within the local authority, other organisations in the area, and other local authorities.

What it means in practice: Capturing and sharing learning involves three steps:

  • Analyse audiences to determine who will be or ought to be interested in, or affected by, the findings and outcomes of the participation activity. This may include:
    • the participants who took part in the activity
    • the wider community
    • service providers
    • other departments and service providers within the local authority
    • local community and voluntary organisations
    • local businesses
    • other local or national stakeholders.
  • Evaluate the participation activity. This is important for two reasons:
    • First, to measure what has been achieved, by answering questions such as:
    • Have we done what we set out to do? (e.g. did we meet targets and fulfil objectives? Were there any other achievements?)
    • What impact has the project had? (e.g. on service provision, on community relations, on individual participants, on local policy?)
    • Did we involve the right people?
    • Second, to help improve future participation activities, by answering questions such as:
    • What worked or didn’t work?
    • Did we set ourselves the right objectives?
    • What should we do differently in the future?
  • Disseminate learning and outcomes to as many audience groups as is appropriate and possible. Dissemination avenues can include:
    • websites, including that of the organisation running the activity, or national websites ( study libraries)
    • mailouts to participants and service providers
    • local authority intranets
    • newsletters and email distribution lists
    • presentations and networking at workshops and conferences
    • press releases.