16 September 2015

The National Standards for Community Engagement – Back to the Future

Policy Reunion 3.jpg
David Allan, Deputy Director at Scottish Community Development Centre, reflects on the Policy Reunion event which looked at the National Standards for Community Engagement, in Glasgow on the 28th August.

In early 2015 Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC) and What Works Scotland (WWS) were commissioned by Scottish Government to undertake a full review and refresh of the National Standards for Community Engagement . The purpose of this review is to ensure that the Standards are ‘fit for purpose’ in the current context with a focus on strengthening participation and community engagement. The review will provide a variety of opportunities (including a survey, focus groups and test sites) for a wide range of people to contribute their views, ideas and suggestions for the refreshed Standards. As part of this review process a policy reunion was organised to go back to the origins of the Standards, understand how they came about, and take stock of their impact. The reunion took place on a Friday afternoon in Glasgow at the end of August. It was attended by a broad range of participants, including the Scottish Government Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment, Marco Biagi, and key people from the early development of the Standards including Alan Barr, Alasdair McKinlay and Tressa Burke who contributed their views and opinions about the process of developing and implementing the Standards over the past 10 years.

I’ve been in and around the Standards for quite a few years now although I wasn’t involved in their original development. For this reason amongst others I was intrigued to hear from those who were directly involved as well as others who’ve come to the Standards more recently. From the outset there was a real buzz about the session with a genuine feeling of enthusiasm and energy about the Standards, what they’ve achieved and where they are going in the current policy context. The Minister kicked off the event by stressing the importance of the Standards Review, particularly in the light of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act and a desire from the Scottish Government to move to a position on community engagement where “good practice becomes standard practice”. The Minister was particularly passionate about the need for a “foundational text” which captures the spirit of community empowerment.

The Minister kicks off the event

Reflections from the panel members then took us back 12 years to the starting point for the National Standards and what the drivers were at that time. These included a need to focus on the relationships between public bodies and communities rather than the structures that existed. It was reassuring to hear from the panel members the importance of starting with a blank sheet and ensuring that the process of developing the Standards was comprehensive and robust. In delivering training on the Standards over the past 5 or 6 years this has been something which I have emphasised on a regular basis and it is something that has ensured that their relevance has been sustained since they were written. What was reinforced by a number of the participants at the reunion session was also that in some ways “the process was more important than the product” and that the robustness of the process was needed at that time. It was also emphasised that the Standards have been seen as a catalyst for other things to happen rather than necessarily being an end in themselves. This resonates for us at the current time in that we need to look at how the Standards have and can be used in their refreshed form and whether they have helped us in developing better community engagement practice over the past 10 years.

The conversation began to dig more deeply into some of these themes and it was interesting to hear that different people look at the Standards in different ways. Some see them as a vehicle for conversation, some wonder if they should be the “template for perfection” or if they should be the underpinning principles upon which more rigorous and detailed frameworks are built. An underpinning theme also reflected on the tensions around awareness and capacity which exists in relation to community participation and engagement, with many participants feeling that awareness (and policy drive) is substantially higher than 10 years ago but that capacity (and resources) are substantially lower.
"Stand up if you've found the Standards useful"

Looking to the future it was interesting to hear a variety of views about what the Standards should look like and what they should be for. These included - supporting a rights-based approach to participation, concentrating on the difference that is made through good community engagement, and ensuring that the values underpinning community engagement aren’t lost in the headlong rush towards ‘new’ tools and methods. It was re-assuring to hear that most people feel that the core Standards don’t need to change much and that the focus should be on making them fit for purpose in the current context.

The session finished with the same energy levels as had been demonstrated throughout – not bad for a Friday afternoon! So, the task has become both easier and more challenging I think! Easier, in that there appears to be fairly strong agreement that the core principles and key elements of the Standards are as valid now as they were 10 years ago, but more challenging in recognising that there is a very informed and articulate constituency out there now who have high expectations of the review process and what they would like to see this time next year. This is a positive challenge though and one which we will respond to and continue to invite people to be part of over the coming months.

 Watch this event:

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